Find subjects where you can break new ground. Record key interviews on video or audio. And remember that a lot of your own faults can be overcome by sheer reporting effort. Stellar tips for investigative reporting from award-winning author and journalist Thomas Maier.
Share with us a story or investigation that you pursued and the impact it had.
I believe judgment and character are crucial to fearless, eye-opening investigations before publication, but two other virtues -- patience and perseverance -- are essential after they appear. My first big investigation for Newsday involved looking at allegations of police and prosecutorial misconduct in handling homicides on Long Island. We found that the cops in the biggest county had an unbelievably high 94 percent confession rate among accused murderers, often relied on questionable jailhouse snitches for “confessions”, that prosecutors offered testimony from a top forensic scientist who lied about his credentials and had a very low conviction rate because so many cases fell apart in court. But the five-day series appeared during the December 1986 holiday season with nary a reaction.
I was dismayed that a whole year’s effort seemed to have no impact at all. Then after New Year’s, all sorts of reaction suddenly surfaced: county and state investigations panels backed up our findings; the forensic scientist pled guilty to perjury; the homicide chief and the police commissioner were replaced; and the county’s top executive lost his re-election that year.
With other investigations, I’ve also learned impact might not be immediate. My investigation of immigrant worker deaths in New York – which won the ICIJ’s 2002 prize – appeared just before the 9/11 tragedy in New York. It took months for U.S. Senate hearings and other reaction about immigrant worker deaths to occur.
But the longest wait ended last year. A five-day Newsday series I did in 1998 warning about the massive overbuilding on Long Island’s fragile shoreline – including abuse of the federal flood insurance and land speculation -- really didn’t seem to have any “impact” until October 2012 when Superstorm Sandy damaged nearly 100,000 properties along Long Island’s coastline, costing billions. That series looks prescient now, but it was a tough lesson. Overall, I’ve realized that the most important thing is to keep your eye on the next story and the impact will take care of itself.
What is the path that led you to investigative journalism in the first place?
I delivered Newsday as a paperboy when it won two Pulitzers in the 1970s under its two-time Pulitzer Prize investigation editor Robert W. Greene. I got to know Bob as a teenager and years later he brought me here from the Chicago Sun-Times. Greene was a brilliant reporter, a true genius of the craft of journalism. With this master teacher, I acted very much like a sponge, leaning as much as I could. Early on, Bob worked as a mob and union corruption investigator with Bobby and Jack Kennedy on the Senate Rackets Committee.
The Greene team at Newsday followed the same methodical note-filing, chronology building and careful cultivating of confidential sources in its own work. (Bob’s lunchtime stories piqued my interest later in doing a book about the Kennedys and the impact of their Irish Catholic immigrant background on their public and private lives). Greene’s memory serves as a sterling example of what journalism is really about – uncovering truths that the powerful don’t want known. At times, you may find yourself dealing with editors and publishers who are clueless about investigative reporting – some never having written a story at all! – but having that standard of excellence is a calming influence, a true compass, like finding a steady port in a storm.
What methods, techniques and tools have served you best as an investigative journalist?
When possible, I’m keen on video or audio-taping every key interview. In writing my recent book on Masters and Johnson, I carefully transcribed all available interviews which provided a wealth of details when it came time to write. 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. As part of the ICIJ team that put together the recent “Skin and Bone” series on the international trade in human body parts, I served as a sort of video producer for numerous interviews that I think added substantially to our multimedia series.
How has the increasing importance of digital and online media (especially the immediacy factor they emphasize) impacted the quality and practice of investigative journalism?
In this digital age, the modern newspaper must do three things well: have a fast and accurate mobile desk for those getting their news on smart phones, tablets and PCs; publish enterprising, well-written print stories geared for those who like to read the paper at home; and a video desk that can translate all sorts of news stories into narrated television reports that can be shown anywhere. Investigative “scoops” have a vital place in all three venues. They can complement each and help build an audience.
Undoubtedly, the digital era has depleted the money flow for print newspapers that once had a monopoly, the kind that I wrote about in my 1994 book about the Newhouse media empire. Google and other online websites have revolutionized the availability of vast amount of information, which has been a boon for investigative reporters like myself. These days, journalists must be more competitive, faster and more concise. But I think the future of news will always depend on “scoops” – and letting consumers know where they can find them -- just like it has with every generation.
Have you employed a lot of data-based methods in your investigative reporting? If yes, what kinds of data do you use and how?
During the past 25 years, I’ve done numerous CAR-related investigations -- sometimes typing in the data in the old days, but always forming the basic set of queries with an eye for detecting tell-tale patterns. For the homicide series mentioned above, we created our own database (long before most records were digitalized!) and pumped every possible detail from court records. In recent years, I’ve been a Geek when it comes to video gadgets and hi-tech, but become dependent on free-lancers or other colleagues much better at CAR-technology than myself in handling large data projects. The key for me is the overall query – exactly what each database holds – and what questions can be answered from it.
Talk about your approach to stories. Is there anything unusual about the way you conduct your research or choose your themes?
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.
Like most investigative reporters, I’m a stickler for accuracy and backing up each claim. For books, I’ve put together unusually long outlines of more than 200,000 words, highlighting in paragraph form each important piece of information and exactly where to find it in my files.
In the future, as a departure from the old days, I plan to more fully integrate video documentary techniques – particularly transcribed sound bites –into my multimedia presentation of stories, so that the e-book versions are better than the ones with deckled edges.
What do you consider some of the most important lessons you have learned over the years?
- 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.
- Remember that wanting to be understood is one of the deepest, most misunderstood of human desires. Make the most of it as a writer.
- 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.
- Never sell out. Find a loved one who understands why journalism is priceless.
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?
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. In writing “Masters of Sex”, I tried to keep this in mind on every page. Wit and humor was very important, helping to keep the description of Masters and Johnson’s sex research and therapies from becoming too clinical or too creepy and leering. 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. In “Masters of Sex”, I learned that Dr. Masters late in his career had apparently made up case studies involving homosexuals as part of his claim that his therapy could help ‘convert’ some patients to heterosexuality if so motivated. (Masters and Johnson even appeared on “Meet The Press” in 1979 to promote this notion!) In the past quarter century, this claim has caused a great deal of mischief and now has been thoroughly debunked. But in telling their story, it was important to place this ‘outrage’ in the context of their overall story -- a paradox in a career that was otherwise a triumph of medical research and human compassion.
What is the biggest single threat to investigative reporting and what advice can you give to others?
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.
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.
What other tips would you give young, emerging, investigative reporters?
Find out where you’d like to work and keep nudging them to hire you until it happens.
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.
No matter how old you get, keep a fresh pair of eyes and an open mind.
Maier's most recent book, Masters of Sex, chronicles the lives of researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson and is being made into a Showtime television dramatic series starring Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan.