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‘Don’t get lured into journalistic group think’

Maud Beelman shares how investigative reporters can make the most of limited time and resources using a four-part checklist to help prioritize which stories to go after.

Maud Beelman, founding director of ICIJ and now deputy managing editor for investigations and enterprise at The Dallas Morning News, has a strategic four-part checklist which helps her prioritize which stories to go after. She shares them here, as well as the most important lessons learned over the years, and how to make the most of the limited time and resources you are given.

This is the latest in our “Secrets of the Masters” series of interviews with great investigative reporters. 

Share with us a story or investigation that you pursued and the impact it had.

Since early 2010, we’ve been investigating patient safety and medical supervision at the big public hospital in Dallas, one of the largest safety-net hospitals in America. What we found is that doctors in residency training at Parkland Memorial Hospital were not being properly supervised by faculty physicians from the teaching hospital’s academic affiliate, UT Southwestern Medical Center. The result has been needless and often tragic harm to Parkland’s mostly poor, minority patients. We further found – through a sophisticated data analysis of more than 9 million hospital records – that Parkland and UTSW were among the worst-performers in Texas on an array of patient-safety measures. Our related investigation into spending by UTSW’s former president found he had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on foreign travel, wine and the opera, with no documented tie to the business needs of the medical school.

Our investigation of Parkland led to the ouster of virtually all of the hospital’s senior leaders. The federal government sent in healthcare inspectors, who confirmed our findings and identified other, systemic problems. Parkland was forced to accept a rare form of government oversight in lieu of losing hundreds of millions of dollars in Medicare-Medicaid funding. In late August, Parkland agreed to pay a $1 million state fine for its patient-safety violations – a penalty 20 times greater than any hospital in Texas history. It must meet an April 2013 federal government deadline for improved patient safety or face potential closure.

Further, the state’s higher education governing board hired a former federal prosecutor to look into questions we raised about spending by the former president of the medical school. His findings closely tracked our own. This led to the removal of the two top auditors and a demand that the former president pay restitution to the medical school. He has since resigned all his remaining faculty positions.

Our findings contradicted the public images that both the hospital and medical school had carefully crafted for themselves as among the finest healthcare institutions in America. The investigation has been controversial locally because it called into question two of the state’s most-revered institutions that, while taxpayer funded, had previously been considered beyond reproach.

What is the path that led you to investigative journalism in the first place?

Wanting to understand what was really driving any situation that I was covering. I was always the kind of reporter who wanted to go deeper than the daily would allow. But the issue finally came to a head in the early 1990s, when as an AP foreign correspondent I was covering the on-the-ground consequences of covert policies being made in Washington and other world capitals.

What methods, techniques and tools have served you best as an investigative journalist?

Believing that things are almost never as they appear has been my guiding philosophy. But being organized and detail-oriented are skills that have served me best, as both a reporter and an editor. Advanced planning, good communication and being organized are essential for success, whether you’re working alone or as part of a team. I also believe that no detail is too small to run down if it helps reveal the underlying story and that “connecting the dots” is half the battle.

How has the increasing importance of digital and online media (especially the immediacy factor they emphasize) impacted the quality and practice of investigative journalism?

I think both have immensely improved the quality of investigative reporting. Posting original documents or databases online with our stories adds a level of depth and detail unavailable to us when we worked in print alone. And both can build confidence among readers in the accuracy and transparency of our work. Combining that with the emotional truth and power that online video brings opens up story-telling elements previously unavailable to print journalists. In addition, we have used our blog and online tip forms to develop sources and new lines of inquiry.

Have you employed a lot of data-based methods in your investigative reporting? If yes, what kinds of data do you use and how?

Documents and databases have been at the heart of nearly every investigation I’ve been a part of over the last 15 years. Whether it’s pre-existing government databases or ones we’ve created ourselves from paper records, data and documents are the foundation of every good investigation and often reveal “truths” that would otherwise go undiscovered.

Talk about your approach to stories. Is there anything unusual about the way you conduct your research or choose your themes.

When considering any potential investigation, I usually ask myself a series of questions, which are quite similar to your “key elements” question below. Those include:
Is there real or potential harm occurring?

  • Is the harm limited or broad in scope?
  • Is a public trust being violated?
  • Is there an abuse of power involved?

The answers help me prioritize which stories to go after first. If you’re really paying attention you know that there are many things in need of investigation, and so you have to be strategic in determining where to spend precious time and resources.

What do you consider some of the most important lessons you have learned over the years?

Be careful of the “master narrative”; don’t get lured into journalistic group think. Go in the opposite direction of the pack. As a reporter, that meant I often worked alone. As an editor who believes in the power of collaboration and teamwork, these principles help guide story selection.

Whenever I hear that someone or some entity “would never do” something or “that’s not a story,” I consider it a sign that I am on the right track. I’ve also learned that often the bigger the pushback you get on a story, the closer you are getting to the truth.

Beyond that, I’d say be skeptical of everything and everyone. But once you have reason to trust your sources, you must do everything in your power to protect them.

What are the key elements that make an investigative story truly “click”? What do they have to have and what should they not be missing?

First, I think it has to be a story that someone doesn’t want told. An investigative story must reveal a “truth” that has been previously hidden. Another element is harm. Are people being hurt by the previously unknown problem, and will revealing that problem bring about an end to the harm? You should also determine the depth and breadth of the problem – is the harm serious and widespread? Does it affect only a few? Is it just potential harm right now that might be stopped? Is there an abuse of power going on, or a public trust being violated? I believe investigative reporters, especially, have an obligation to look out for “the little guy.”

What is the biggest single threat to investigative reporting and what advice can you give to others?

Obviously, it’s the economy of the industry and the pressure that creates to cut anything that requires a lot of time and money. So make the most of the time and resources you are given. Don’t waste them on frivolous stories. Take your best shots. Work hard, get the truth, right the wrongs, and the value of your work will be evident. In a cluttered information landscape, unique investigative content is a niche product that smart bosses know they can market.

What other tips would you give young, emerging, investigative reporters?

I once saw a bumper sticker that seemed like it ought to be the battle cry of all investigative reporters: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

So … pay attention; be outraged; be tenacious; be persistent; be detail-oriented; but also be compassionate and humane.

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