Techniques top reporters use for digging out news including getting past PR are described in detail in notes on the IRE meeting Jan. 24 published as a public Google document.

Lam Thuy Vo and Joanna Kao, reporters for Al Jezeera America, have published thousands of words in the document on the meeting Jan. 24 of Investigative Reporters & Editors in New York.

Kao, Vo

This website published nearly 2,000 words on the meeting Jan. 27, concentrating on the talks of New York Times reporters Walt Bogdanich and David Barstow and author David Cay Johnston.

Vo and Kao have provided extensive notes on talks by Bob Ivry of Bloomberg and Lauren LaCapra of Reuters, who discussed the Wall Street Beat; Jeff Pohlman of CNBC, discussing the da Vinci computerized system for doing medical operations, and Barbara Gray of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, discussing the web as a reporting tool.

PR people will be most interested in the reporting techniques used by Barstow and Bogdanich.

Below are the notes for Bogdanich, including Q&A:

The Investigative Interview - Walt Bogdanich

  • pushing people out of their comfort zone, that’s what you have to do
  • listen
  • ask open ended questions and let people talk, particularly in the early stages
  • getting started
    • get in the door
    • interviews over the phone or email isn’t as productive as being in someone’s office face-to-face
    • tell them that you’re not there for an interview. you’re there to introduce yourself and explain what you’re doing and tell them how they can reach you
    • once you’re in their office, their guard is down b/c it’s not an interview. but you’re establishing a relationship
    • give them the regular spiel, who you are and contact info, then talk about regular subjects like weather and things, and then slip in what you’re working on
    • get yourself to the office, don’t call beforehand and get in before your subject gets lawyered up
  • qualities of a good investigative interviewer
    • you have to believe that there is something you can say that will make them want to talk to you
    • a “document state of mind” like with public records
    • if someone doesn’t talk to you, it’s because you haven’t figured out what buttons to push
    • you need to have a high social IQ
    • find an emotional button to push - is your subject vain? angry?
    • don’t give up. always believe you’re going to get that interview
    • don’t say the same thing every time you try to talk to a source. try something different if one thing doesn’t work
    • take the time to learn about the person you’re trying to talk to
    • bait the hook - sent an email to someone saying something like “I think you’d like to know what I know and what people are saying to you”
    • curiosity is a great way to bait the hook
    • show people that you know something (or act that you know nothing)
    • don’t be afraid to be a fool or look like an idiot
    • don’t take a no for an answer
  • what to do when someone doesn’t talk to you or call back
    • ask pointed questions and/or pester them. make them feel uncomfortable. where it’s easier to get rid of you than to continue getting your phone calls
    • make them feel your presence
    • when you can’t get through a PR person, you can ask to call their boss (don’t do it unless you’ve tried pretty much everything else already). go up the chain of command.
  • goal of an investigative interview
    • you want to know how things work - informational
    • how do things work? spend time talking about that
    • at the end, ask people what the takeaway is. you can often get a good summary of what just transpired
    • after an interview, don’t just get up and leave. just sit and grab coffee. stick around after the interview => people will talk
    • awkward pauses are good. just look at them. people will often rush in to fill in that vacuum of silence
    • people don’t want to be known as whistleblowers
    • when you’re doing an interview and someone says something really shocking and they don’t realize it, act like you almost didn’t hear it
  • basics
    • easy questions first
    • ask people how they know something - who else can I talk to? documents?
    • what else should I ask that I didn’t ask?
    • get contact info
    • off the record is totally fine in the early stages, especially with outer ring people. don’t want them worrying about what they say. But down the road, someone’s going to tell you to do it off the record and then at the end get permission for certain quotes. Never fall for that. Because they’ll never approve the quotes you want.
    • If there’s a phone, ask if you’re being recorded and who else is in the room and how do you spell your name. If it’s being taped, ask if you can call back later, “because you want to tape it too.”
    • what do you do when your source sends you a record of your interview but theirs is wrong? you send them a note that you asked for it to be recorded and they refused and that the account is inaccurate. don’t just not respond.
    • if there’s somewhere you’re going where you don’t belong, act like you belong (e.g. a reporter walked in and bought flowers at a hospital every day because that was a way she could get in and not get stopped. people treated her like she was a family member)
  • confrontation interview approach has changed
    • establish communication with company early on. get them talking early on. get them telling you what their rules and standards are
    • open lines of communication - it works out better that way
  • Q&A
    • Q: Whistleblower asks to talk to lawyer before going on the record.
    • A: Never let someone go talk to their lawyer and come back to you tomorrow. That never turns out well. Find a way to get them talking. Do what you need to do before they talk to the lawyer. Say we’re talking because you care about the subject. Lawyers will just tell you not to talk about anything.
    • Q: What happens when your subject starts backtracking?
    • A: Don’t get off the phone in the first place. Resist the temptation to hang up the phone too early b/c you’re excited. But stay on the phone FOREVER. As long as you have someone on the line, don’t let them go.
    • Q: What to do when PR says give me some written questions. We’ll get back to you.
    • A: You have leverage. Say something like “You can do that but that won’t be a fair and full representation of your agency. It might be best if you provide me someone to have a real conversation with.” or just ask for an introduction and meet people (not interview).
    • Q: What to do when tech companies just point you to their latest blog post or tweet.
    • A: Hint that you’re going to get the story anyhow, so might as well cut the BS and get straight to it. Tell people that they’re not your only source.
    • Q: When you meet with companies early, doesn’t that run the risk of them telling everyone to not talk to you?
    • A: There is that increased risk. But you’re not going in there to tell them everything you know. You’re coming as a country bumpkin. Trains? How do they work? Just establish a relationship. Work it in gently so they don’t know what you’re working at.
The investigative reporter’s mindset - David Barstow - General track
  • Barstow describes himself as a “creature of Watergate”
  • Lessons from Columbo… yep the TV show.
    • approach interviews with open-minded child-like curiosity. don’t be a hater.
    • be comfortable with yourself
    • be patient. be relentless. don’t give up.
    • always try to overstay your welcome with people. just don’t move. don’t get up. just sit there.
    • take advantage of people underestimating you at the beginning of the investigation, then count on them overestimating you at the end of the investigation
    • be obsessive about the tiny details and how you go about finding them. crave all the useless tiny details. because it’s only in the craving of all those details that you get yourself to the point that when it comes time to write, you get an internal comfort level that you’ve mastered the subject matter. otherwise, it’s hard to write with the same conviction.
    • master the subject matter
  • it’s psychologically difficult
    • expectations go up the longer you work on something and it’s lonely
    • how to handle it?
  • in the beginning of his career, he would do investigative work on the side during nights and weekends. his goal was to write 5 stories a year that he could be proud of. He would pitch stories and ask for 3 days and make sure that the 3 days paid off. Editors want to know that if they place a bet on a story, they want it to pay off. So know the size of the bet you can reasonably ask for. Build up to a sizable bet.
  • How to adequately prepare?
    • be super duper organized
    • suck your editors into the reporting process as much as possible. sometimes it’s annoying for you or them, but make them read everything. make them read 200 page chronology. make sure they’re invested in the reporting process, both the highs and the lows because it’s nice to have company. Also, if they know your process, then they’ll know your timeline a lot better.
  • How do you go through 100,000 pages of documents. Actually read them. Just searching through them doesn’t work. Read it like you’re studying for an exam in college. Immerse yourself in them so you get an internal mastery of the subject. Marinate yourself in the material. That marination process is so essential to the writing process.
  • Know how to manage that moment when you sit down to write and nothing comes to mind.
    • sit there and spend a day free associating. figure out what are the best moments and the best stuff. come up with a basic architecture of what the story could look like.
    • Don’t just sit there at the beginning and write a lede. When you write a lede, you should have the maximum amount of confidence about what you actually have. So before you get to the lede, do an incredibly long rough cut. Put mud on a sculpture. So if it’s a 7000 word story, rough cut is in the 35000-40000 word range. This prevents you from every being stuck. It helps you always keep the ball rolling. This helps you avoid paralysis.
    • Fact check. Get to the point where you can sleep the night before a big story. Do everything you can possibly do to make your story and you survive with it. Be intellectually honest with yourself and go literally word by word to know how you knew something. Go check sentence by sentence, word by word.
  • Be the simple seeker of truth.
  • Q&A:
    • Question by Jack O’Dwyer: Harper’s Bazaar had some 16 page thing about butlers. He lied to get into this Butler course. Was what they did ethical? Answer: Giant no. I wouldn’t do that. Don’t give up your position of moral authority. It undermines your story. Every story is like a bridge and reporting for it is like a brick. You don’t want your entire bridge contingent on just on brick. Don’t have a story that rests completely on one brick or one source. Get enough bricks so that you can have many fall off at the end and still have a bridge.
    • Merrell Williams, whistleblower, had lots of documents and rubber girdle for stealing them
    • Question: How do you do free associations and structuring? Answer: Put away your notes and think. Don’t even write in the beginning. Trust. Come to the connections that help turn a scene into a really great chapter. Think cinematically. Try to conceptualize if it was a movie, what would the first image be and where would the camera pan? What would be the most interesting coolest scenes to write? Don’t worry about what the whole story is yet. Think about really great moments. Look for those moments. Write those moments down. And eventually it’ll make sense how those moments connect.