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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: