Month: April 2011

Starting your own investigation

Want to do your own investigation but aren’t sure where to start?

A good story is often easier than you might think. This story, which won a Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence of Award this year, started with an email.

Start by filing a FOIA (which you can learn more about here). Be sure to include as much specific information as possible when filing your FOIA – an office will likely ignore or even dismiss your request if it appears to be too vague. Don’t worry at this point about keeping the focus of your story under wraps; if you don’t have any documentation to back up what you want to report on, you’ve got nothing to hide anyway. Remember, your job at this point involves complete transparency.

Once you get your documents – and be warned, this can take time, which is why it is best to start at this step – it’s time to organize them. This can be done using a simple spreadsheet, whether it’s excel, google or whatever else you like to use, and will save you a lot of time in the long run.

For this story, we simplified the wealth of information into a few key points, and ended up with something that looked like this.

Now that you’ve organized it, it’s time to filter it down. This can be done in a variety of ways, but it’s best to keep it consistent. For example, if a story has a strong geographical element to it, you might want to start by breaking out all the info by location. If it’s people you’re focused on, use their names. At this point you want to keep it simple, that way the legwork pays off in the end when you can actually find what you’re looking for.

Once you’ve got your data in order, it’s time to go back and re-interview. It’s often a good idea to do this multiple times – there is no such thing as too many interviews. Don’t be intimated by this, either. Instead, think of each interview as an opportunity to collect a single piece of information. It could be something as simple as an address that in a couple weeks leads to your best source, or the name of a building or penal code you didn’t know before. If you approach interviews this way, it’s tough to have a failed conversation with anybody.

Now that you’ve collected your data and reported the story it’s time for the fun part – writing it out! While this part can be stressful, it is a lot easier if you’ve done the preparation beforehand. Ideally, your story should write itself once you’ve added in the data and sprinkled in your interviews. If you don’t find this to be the case, you might want to go back to step one and check to see if your groundwork – the foundation for any good investigation – is solid.

SPJ Mark of Excellence

How to file a FOIA

The Freedom of Information Act, signed in 1966 and in effect since 1967, grants public access to literally millions of government documents, with a few exceptions. As a journalist, the FOIA is a valuable tool, and an easy way to get your story off the ground.

The process for filing a FOIA varies in each state, and you will often find yourself dealing with state law that differs slightly as well, depending on what gov’t agency you are seeking out information from. Rather than try to come up with the wording for the letter, which you can just send via email to the agency, use the Student Press Law Center letter generator, which you can find here.

The form is by far the easiest to use. Simply input the name of the person/agency you are sending it to, what you are looking for, how much you are willing to spend and your contact information – it does the rest! The cost for requesting documents varies, and many agencies will try to make you pay up to 50 cents and sometimes more for a single page of a document. If you are requesting a lot of documents, this can add up fast. To avoid paying hundreds of dollars for information, ask the agency if they can provide you with an electronic copy of the information. That way you avoid the costs and have the information already stored in your computer (which will come in handy if you are going to input the data into a database or spreadsheet later on).

If they do not keep digital copies of the documents, try to see if you can arrange a time to come and view the originals at their office. This can be time consuming, and a little tedious when you have the very agency you are trying to investigate breathing down your neck, but it’s a cost saving measure that can be well worth your trouble.