A young journalist asked me recently to share tips on investigative reporting.
Here they are:
Be willing to listen to lunatics. Much of my reporting has centered on covering white supremacists and the lunatic fringe. The truth is, if you want to truly cover these people, you have to spend a lot of time with them and, more important, you have to listen to them. An occasional head nodding wont cut it. As crazy as it sounds, you have to be interested in them. Just because someone is nuts, has no credibility and a personality so offensive that you feel a need for a shower later doesnt mean that person cant be a valuable source. He may be crazy enough to get you those sealed documents youve been coveting for months.
Be willing to read what the lunatics read. It is only by reading what they were reading that you can get a sense of what they are thinking. A source of mine had read The Turner Diaries and made that connection when Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Turned out McVeigh had been inspired by that racist book to carry out the bombing.
Be willing to appeal to motives you despise. You need to understand that their motives are often very different from yours. Perhaps they like to see their egos stroked or their rivals taken down a notch or two. Perhaps their motives are more complex and bizarre. The bottom line for you in collecting information is to find ways to appeal to those motives. In obtaining the sealed records of a state segregationist spy agency known as the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, I used a variety of sources, all with different motives.
Be willing to harass. Im not talking about the Mike Wallace in-your-face-so-you-automatically-look-guilty approach. I prefer what I call polite harassment, perpetual persistence that shows youre not going to give up until you get what you want. An example: I had to get a quote from a lawyer. I called that morning and reached his secretary, who was very polite. I explained why I needed the quote. In short, she began to turn into my ally. I called every hour, asking for him. By the time I called at mid-afternoon, she said, Hold on a minute. Im going to get him on the phone right now. He talked to me.
Be willing to be harassed. In other words, be willing to write stories that are unpopular. Bob Woodward once said great journalism is done in defiance of management. Hes right. Hopefully, you have the kind of management that will embrace your efforts, but if you dont, you have to be willing to stick your own neck out.
Be willing to pursue a story, even when youre sick of it. I learned this by accident as a young reporter in Hot Springs, Ark. I had written a story almost every day on how city leaders bailed out a theme park losing $1 million a year that not so coincidentally happened to have much of its stock owned by those same city leaders. I even learned that the park had violated its own bond agreement by using bond money to improperly paying off stockholders loans. A local motel owner finally sued, challenging the bonds. When I talked with him and asked him why, he replied, I got tired of reading about it in the paper.
Be willing to dial the wrong number. Once, I was searching for a guy named Hollis Creswell, who had given Byron De La Beckwith his alibi in the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi. I knew he had lived in Greenwood, Mississippi, but I didnt know where hed moved to. I picked up the Greenwood phone directory and saw there were several Creswells listed. I picked the one that looked most promising and dialed. Is Hollis Creswell there? I asked in my most polite Southern accent. No, the man replied, You want my cousin. Hes living over there near Maben. Ive got his number. Hollis Creswell ended up giving me the only interview he ever gave. And that story showed some of the inconsistencies that Creswell and the other policemen gave in their alibi stories. Beckwith was later convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Since then, 23 other men guilty of killings from the civil rights era have also been convicted.
Never fail to make friends. Learn to make friends with everyone from the janitor on up. Secretaries. Assistants. Deputies. Clerks. Write their names down and put them in your smartphone or electronic Rolodex or wherever you keep them. As someone once remarked, the sweetest sound to a person is her or her name.
Never forget that phone numbers are gold. If you get a phone number, write it down. You never know when that number might come in handy. On the night that former Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett died, someone at the Arkansas Gazette graciously shared former Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus phone number. I later called him for a story on segregation in the South. After filling five Rolodexes, I now keep phone numbers electronically. Im now over 3,500.
Never forget the words of Peter Finley Dunne, who once said the job of journalism was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. (Dunnes words are obviously hyperbole, but they do capture what reporters should be about in their daily work.)