Expert Commentary

Digging deep: Strategies for investigations

Tips from seasoned investigative journalists on FOIA requests, working with sources and more.

Aerial view of Watergate complex

Seasoned investigative journalists gathered to share strategies for successful probes at Northeastern University on November 17, 2017. We highlight some of their tips:

On FOIA requests:

Michael Morisy of MuckRock offered suggestions for large public records projects:

  1. Look before you leap. Morisy advised checking existing records requests to verify that yours is unique. If what you want is already out there, you can save quite a bit of time and effort. DocumentCloud is one resource worth checking, with over 1 million publicly available documents to search. Relevant documents also might hold clues as to key terms for future FOIA requests.
  2. Don’t send out all your requests at once. Starting with one or two can give you a sense of what works and what doesn’t, and how you might refine or expand future queries.
  3. Get organized. Keep a calendar of important dates and track the progress of your requests in a spreadsheet. And be sure to follow up on outstanding requests. Morisy mentioned FOIA Machine and his own site, MuckRock, as two online resources for generating and tracking FOIA requests. He suggested #FOIA on Twitter and MuckRock’s Slack channel as additional sources of ideas and information throughout the process.
  4. Submitting the same requests to various agencies can provide helpful points of comparison. Additionally, it can serve as a source of leverage if particular agencies aren’t complying with requests while others are — “peer pressure,” as Morisy put it.

Journalist’s Resource has a number of tip sheets on FOIA requests, on topics ranging from predicting whether your request will succeed, to locating nonprofits’ records. There’s also general advice and lists of government agencies.

On sources:

Michael Rezendes, a member of The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team and a 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner for his reporting on sex abuse in the Catholic Church, suggested the following as strategies for working with sources:

  1. People want to talk. For those who seem reluctant, he offered a few tips–be sincere, humble, reassuring and prepared. Fostering a comfortable atmosphere goes a long way. Reminding the source of the significance of their interview as it fits into the story also helps.
  2. Be accessible to tips, whether through email, Twitter direct messages, encrypted messaging apps like Signal, a PGP key, or phone. Though some tips might seem crazy, don’t dismiss them out of hand, Rezendes said. Some might be legitimate, so it’s worth checking things out.
  3. If a potential source is particularly elusive, try a letter. Rezendes said this personal touch can be convincing. He suggested other strategies including working your way in through contacts close to the source. And for the extremely desperate, he said it’s worth a try to knock on their front door.

On finding stories:

  1. David Armstrong of STAT encouraged going out and looking at documents in person. Vast troves of documents aren’t digitized, existing only as hard copies. And you never know what you might find when you go outside the newsroom. Armstrong unexpectedly spotted boxes of sealed documents in a courthouse in West Virginia relevant to an opioid investigation he was working on. After persuading the judge to unseal the records, he was rewarded with reams of helpful information.
  2. Armstrong, Rezendes and Morisy advised paying attention and staying curious as key strategies for the story-starved–ideas are all around you. Rezendes described features he wrote on billboard painters and an old subway car as examples of stories arising from everyday observations. A sticker on an ATM caught Morisy’s eye and led to an investigation into ATM complaints.
  3. Casey McDermott, a reporter at New Hampshire Public Radio, suggested identifying key decision makers where you’re reporting. Ask yourself, “Are they fulfilling their responsibilities to the public?” Then hold them accountable–investigate the gaps between what they ought to be doing and what they are doing.
  4. Though many journalists steer clear of the comments section, McDermott said it can offer story ideas and unexplored angles. Twitter and letters to the editor (i.e., the proto-comments section) can be fruitful resources, too.
  5. Seemingly basic or naive questions may be worthwhile starting points for investigations. Morisy and McDermott both pointed out that looking at things through beginners’ eyes can generate interesting stories.
  6. Take history as your guide. Morisy recommended reading through past Pulitzer Prize-winning stories. The issues these pieces address are likely ongoing.

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