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Is Public Indifference the Biggest Threat to Investigative Reporting?

Strong words in defence of dedicated journalists, and unbeatable tips for investigative reporters young and old, from ICIJ's award-winning Thomas Maier.

Thomas Maier is an award-winning author and investigative journalist for Newsday in New York. He won the 2002 ICIJ Award for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting for his investigation into the plight of America’s immigrant workers, and was a key member of the ICIJ team on the recent “Skin and Bone” series on the international trade in human body parts.

He is also the latest in our “Secrets of the Masters” Q&A series with the world’s top investigative reporters, and he generously shares advice about investigative reporting in the digital age.

Maier has strong words on what he perceives to be the greatest threat to investigative reporting:

“The biggest threat is indifference by the public. Journalists devoted to ferreting out fact-based truth are the best antidote to the ‘bread and circuses’ of entertainment and in helping people figure out what’s really important in their lives.”

Maier stresses that integrity is the best asset of an investigative reporter:

“For individual journalists, never forget you have only one boss – the best version of the truth you can provide on a blank screen or sheet of paper. Some reporters have lost their jobs and even their lives in this pursuit, but never their souls. … Never sell out.”

Amongst his tips: record key interviews on video or audio:

“At Newsday, I carry a high-definition video camera everywhere I go. In the past few years, I’ve done a number of joint print and television investigations with Newsday and its new Cablevision owner which runs a regional 24-hour television news station. As a print reporter, I sometimes get too chatty, but now I quietly let the recorder roll. When I’m later in the editing room, I find all sorts of nuggets that I didn’t pick up during the interview. It’s reminded me of a fundamental lesson in reporting – shut up and listen.”

Some of the most important lessons Maier has learned throughout his career:

“Uncovering is better than covering. Keep everything on the record. Slowly spell out the names of interviewees and repeat it to them so it’s absolutely correct.

Cogitate, ruminate and revise. Clear writing is the result of clear thinking.

Be as hospitable and friendly as possible to the targets of your investigation. Create an atmosphere where they are most comfortable revealing the truth as they see it. “

When asked his tips for emerging investigative reporters, Maier says:

“Avoid editors who never write or seem strangely removed from reading – the essential pleasure of their product.

Remember that a lot of your own faults, including ignorance or stupidity, can be overcome by sheer reporting effort.”

How does Maier choose his stories?

“As an investigative reporter, I try to follow the advice of Wee Willie Keller, one of baseball’s .400 hitters, who said his secret was, “I hit ‘em where they ain’t.” In other words, find new subjects – or look for new wrinkles in old ones – where you can break new ground and make your mark. This is very important in pitching a book or a long-term investigative project, when publishers and editors are making a substantial investment in the success of your work.”

Essential elements to an investigative report?

“I believe in the Big Three of reader emotions: make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, or make ‘em outraged. Ideally, every big investigative project should contain all three. It compels people to stay tuned in, to read on to the very end. … Getting readers to cry is a part of the tragedy of human life that fills up newspapers every day, so be careful not to rely on tabloid clichés.

Outrages are sometimes so obvious that you must be careful as a writer not to bang it over the heads of readers or become too preachy.

Use wit and humor to keep your audience’s attention (America’s newspapers truly are awful at this) and leave open the door for redemption with even your worst sinners.”

ICIJ is dedicated to ensuring all reports we publish are accurate. If you believe you have found an inaccuracy let us know.