How to think like an investigative journalist
Seven investigative strategies
The investigative mindset is responsible for solving more information mysteries than probably any other factor. If you haven’t already started writing down your best strategies, now might be a good time to start. I’ve been able to whittle my list down to seven basic concepts which I use whenever I need to solve an information problem.
Think of what has worked well for you in the past and the lessons you picked up from your last investigation. If you didn’t learn a new lesson or a new tool or a new danger signal, you’re not growing.
You should certainly compile your own list. But while you’re doing it, I’m happy to share mine with you.
Feel free to use or reject any of them. If you can improve them, or if you can come up with something that has worked for you and that might work for me, please add a comment using the comment form at the end of this module.
1: Just Doesn’t Look Right (J.D.L.R.)
How often have you looked at something and felt deep inside that it just didn’t look right? You can’t put your finger on it, but let it resonate within your brain for a few seconds. Just doesn’t look right. J.D.L.R.
It seems every investigative reporter has a different name for the phenomena – “What’s wrong with this picture?” “Something fishy is going on here.” “I smell a rat.” Whatever you call it, the important thing is that you first recognize it and, even more importantly, you act on it.
If you’re a good investigator, you won’t sleep until you can figure out what’s out of place. You’ll shake you head each time you look at it.
It’s a lot like the official at the border crossing between two friendly states who, every day, lets the same man on a bicycle pass to the other side.
The man says he has nothing to declare, but the official “feels it in his bones” that the man is up to something. But every time he searches the man, he comes up empty. No drugs, no jewellery, no large sums of money – nothing.
But he could still swear the guy was up to no good. Finally, he described the man to his evening replacement.
“Yeah, I know which guy you’re talking about,” the other official said. “But when he comes back into the country, he’s always on foot.” It was only then that the first official figured it out – the man was smuggling bicycles.
J.D.L.R.s are great for coming up with new story ideas. Why do we never see our mayor on Mondays or Fridays? Could he be taking long weekends at taxpayers’ expense?
Why does every person charged with being a drug dealer get a light sentence in one particular judge’s court? Could the judge be on the take?
Why is there an arson-set fire in every city the prominent arson investigator is visiting while he’s visiting there? Could he be actually setting the fires?
These may seem hard to prove or outrageous in nature, but they would never come to light had some investigator not scratched his or her head and said, “Hmmm. That just doesn’t look right.”
If you’re a good investigator, you won’t sleep until you can figure out what’s out of place.
2: Who would know?
It seems like such a simple concept. Before you go off in search of something, why not consider that someone else might already know the answer?
Personally, I think it’s a genetic thing. I think that after millions of years of evolution, any hunter who couldn’t find a way around the forest ended up starving to death and, as a result, dropping out of the evolutionary process.
It makes sense – if there was only one animal around at the time, the competition would be fierce. The gatherers, however, were probably more likely to share information about forests abundant with fruit trees.
Is it our job to know everything? No, it’s our job to learn stuff quickly and accurately.
So to fight the genes in me that make me want to pretend I already know the answer or that it will come to me through divine telepathy, I always remind myself to ask myself who would know.
Don’t ignore the unexpected source of information
A great example was when I was working as a producer/reporter for an investigative news magazine for a Public Broadcasting Station housed on the campus of Arizona State University.
The advantage of being there was that we could use journalism students as interns and assistance. It was great for them, because they could learn from us.
One evening I sat with an intern who was frustrated because he could find no trace of bird smugglers in Phoenix. I had given him the assignment knowing there was an active underground ring that was bringing parrots across the border from Mexico and avoiding both the customs fees as well as the required quarantine.
There was no one else in the building at the time except a student from Nigeria who was making a few extra bucks by sweeping floors. As my intern sat, discouraged, I listened to him bemoan that there was probably no smuggling going on.
“I asked every pet store owner in Phoenix if they knew about smuggled parrots, but they all said ‘no’ I give up. There’s no way to get to the truth.”
About that time the Nigerian student was sweeping past us. “Excuse me,” I asked politely, “but do you know anything about bird smuggling?”
“Do you mean the parrots they bring across the border in pickup trucks?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Yes, I know about them. My room mate smuggles them.”
It could be just about anyone. They don’t have to be government officials or university professors or anyone special – just people who know more about something than you know.
Keep in mind what you are looking for
It’s pretty simple. What’s the thing you’re searching for? Say it aloud and then ask yourself who would know.
Doing a story about a doctor who seems more like a butcher than a surgeon? You’ll need an expert in his field to put his performance in perspective and help you with the questions you should be asking or the red flags to which you should be alert.
How do you find that expert? Who would know about medicine? Doctors. Any doctors. Call any doctor and ask what the name is of the specialist about which you’re curious.
When you learn that, call one of those specialists in your area and ask where the best university is that teaches physicians that specialty.
Then call that university and ask who the very best, most famous, on-the-cutting-edge specialist is anywhere in the world.
Then call that top expert and ask him or her who in your area is the next best. The expert will surely name a colleague you can trust.
Then call that local expert and buy him or her lunch. Soon, they’ll be your mentor on that particular story. And chances are they’ll know the butcher all too well. People probably regularly call on them to correct the damage done by the butcher.
And don’t forget about friends, relatives, neighbors, co-workers, running partners and others who would know where someone might have gone.
Someone in hiding isn’t going to tell a lot of people where he is, but his mother probably knows.
The people in his industry probably know. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to help you.
Keep thinking of possible links
The FBI and I were both looking for the same former employee of a multi-national oil company that was suspected of price fixing. I looked for lawsuits against the company and contacted a former employee who was suing the company and only asked for one thing—their old copy of the company directory.
It didn’t take long to find the name of the guy I was looking for in the directory. I called his old number and asked some really innocent questions, such as: “Who might know where Mr. X. Employee is now?”
The person suggested I might look for the man’s brother in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He works for the police department there, he told me. I quickly got the guy’s brother on the phone and learned that the man I wanted was in Miami, Florida. His brother even gave me his address.
After that, it wasn’t difficult to get a phone number and call him. He was shocked that I had found him, but happy the FBI wasn’t quite as efficient.
And you might consider deputizing people. You don’t have to be a policeman or sheriff to deputize someone. You simply tell them about the exciting story you’re working on and tell them they could play an important role. Tell them they might see their work on the front page of tomorrow’s paper or on the six o’clock news. You’ll be amazed at how they’ll help you.
A friend of mine was doing a story in the desert community of El Centro, California and was having difficulty getting certain information about a physician who was accused of molesting his female patients.
None of the victims wanted to admit to journalists or government investigators what they had allowed this man to do to them under the guise of authority. Few of the victims were willing to discuss with journalists or police what the man had done to them. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t talk to their friends. Who would know? Beauticians.
My friend went to several of the beauty shops in El Centro and “deputized” the people working there. Soon, they were calling my friend at home and reporting on the gossip they were hearing from customers. Of course, my friend could only use the information as information leads, but it worked nonetheless.
Keep asking yourself the most important question – who would know?
What’s the thing you’re searching for? Say it aloud and then ask yourself who would know.
3: Figure out the system
One of the biggest mistakes young or inexperienced investigators make is that they fail to look at the system in which they’re working. They fail to put the information they’re finding in the context of the system from which they obtained the information.
It’s very easy to make assumptions about how a system works. And it’s very easy to get egg on your face when you draw an incorrect conclusion from information you received from a system you didn’t understand.
Case in point. An investigative reporter was investigating rumors that people close to the President of the United States had played a hand in the death of a woman who had claimed she had incriminating evidence on videotape about one of the cabinet members.
When the reporter requested a copy of the death certificate of the murdered woman, he immediately went about verifying the information on the document. When he got the box that asked for the name of the “informant” he found the name of the dead woman’s best girlfriend. She put down her true address – about 100 miles from the scene of the murder.
Study the words
When he dug deeply into the story, he learned and accurately reported that the informant had not been anywhere near the area where her friend died for a month before the murder and not at all afterwards. Then how was she able to be the informant?
He was 100% accurate in his reporting, but he was wrong in his interpretation. He allowed the reader to conclude that, indeed, government officials had doctored the death certificate to cover up for their own sinister wrongdoing. On the surface, it sounds logical – unless you seek to figure out the system.
Just what does “informant” mean on the death certificate? At first glance it means “the name of the person who informed the authorities that someone had died.” If that were the case, it would, indeed, be quite difficult for the best friend to first discover the body when she was 100 miles away. It would sure appear that someone was lying. And it was the government officials who issued the death certificate.
Sounds like corruption, doesn’t it? But a phone call to the County Recorder or the Coroner would have led the reporter to information he hadn’t considered – that the “informant” is the person who informed authorities of all the personal information about the dead person that they needed to complete the form.
What was her full name? Where was she born? Who are her parents? What is her profession? Address? Date of birth? Get the picture? Imagine how embarrassing it would be to send your readers or viewers down such a path.
There are other reasons for figuring out the system. When you understand everything about the system you can often learn of other places to find more information.
If someone gets a speeding ticket, the state motor vehicle department will release the information they have regarding the citation. But how does that fit into a system?
The person with the citation had to go to a local court to either fight the ticket, pay the fine or both. That means there is probably something on file at the local court that could be helpful to you. Many times you’ll be able to view the actual citation the police officer issued.
Here’s a chance to see exactly where someone was at a precise time on a particular day. Could that be important? Would it help to know there were three other people in the car at the time? That is was raining? That the person was supposed to be wearing glasses?
It’s easy to draw an incorrect conclusion from information you receive
4: Ensure you understand
My rule of thumb is that I will not read beyond any line on a document until I understand it. I make it a point to read not only what’s filled in on a form, but what the form is requesting.
If the form asks for “supporting evidence” but “oral evidence” is typed in instead, does that mean that the applicant simply swore the information was true? Probably not. It had to be someone else giving oral evidence.
Otherwise, why would the form ask for “supporting evidence”? Why go to the trouble of printing up a form that asks for supporting evidence if it would also accept the person’s sworn statement?
It’s more likely that someone else provided the oral evidence on behalf of the applicant. Their word would be the same as a document or other supporting evidence. By figuring out the system, it gives you a clue that here may be someone else with whom you should talk.
But how would you know who it was that provided the oral evidence? There’s probably another document somewhere that would show that—there almost always is. That’s when you need to know the system.
Use logic to try to understand systems
It’s easy to ask someone what the system is, but a good investigator will try to quickly figure out the system by using logic. If you’re looking at the cross-referenced index to civil case files and you discover there’s an asterisk next to some of the alphabetized names in the left column and no asterisk next to any of the names in the right column marked “other party”, what’s going on?
What would make some of the people in the left column different? Could it be that those with the asterisk are the plaintiff while the ones without the asterisk are the defendant? Probably. That would mean that when you identify the role of the person on the left, the person on the right must be the opposite—or other party.
But which one is the plaintiff—the one with the asterisk or the one without? You could go ask the clerk or you could simply look up the name of a case you already know. Were you divorced? You’ll know the answer when you see your own listing. Since you know which of you was the plaintiff and who was the defendant, you’ll be able to tell which uses the asterisk.
Do not read beyond any line of a document unless you understand it.
5: Look for victims and enemies
Victims and enemies are usually more apt to want to talk to you and much less likely to report back to the person you’re investigating that you were poking around. They make great sources.
Granted, they’re angry and hateful and filled with vengeance, but they’re usually happy to spew out their hatred to anyone who will listen. And, of course, the information they offer will almost always be exaggerated – sometimes to the point of being a fairy tale – there will always be nuggets of gold you can take to the bank.
Victims and enemies are not hard to find. Look for former employees or employers, ex-spouses or ex-lovers, people who were on the other side of lawsuits, actual victims of crimes committed, former in-laws, business rivals, the list goes on and on.
If you do a complete enough public records search and a complete enough newspaper and magazine search, you’re likely to find situations where there may be victims and enemies. Talk to associates and ask them who would be a person’s enemy.
Sometimes you can even ask the person you’re investigating. There’s nothing wrong with asking a politician or government official or corporate head this simple question: “What do your critics have to say about this?” Often, they’ll name the critics for you and then tell you why you shouldn’t believe them at all.
Opponents are often willing to help
A great person to help you find victims and enemies of people holding elected office is the campaign manager of the greatest opponent. Many candidates hire “opposition research” specialists—private investigator who dig up every piece dirt imaginable on the opposing candidate. They almost always find information they won’t end up using.
For example, they may find that the opposing candidate had an affair or once used drugs or was once arrested. But if their own candidate also had an affair or once used drugs or was once arrested, the information will remain a secret. While the former opposition research person or the former campaign manager will probably never speak on the record, there’s a great chance they’ll point you to where you can find the information on your own.
Also keep in mind that some of the people closest to the person you’re investigating may, in their own ways, feel victimized.
I was once hired to look at the travel expense accounts of a judge who was so incompetent that defense attorneys would often request a different judge. A state law allowed a defendant to “paper” one judge one time during their trial.
Since this particular judge was the only judge for miles, the presiding judge would have to continually fly in another judge to sit on the trial. That means the incompetent judge would also have to be flown somewhere else to cover for some absentee judge—you can’t just let the bad judge not work. My job was to find out how much money the taxpayers were spending to send this goof-off judge to distant cities.
His clerk was nearly three times his age and had clearly run the courthouse for decades. When I asked her if I could see the judge’s expense accounts she looked at her watch and pointed to a file cabinet.
“Look, it’s almost noon and I’m going to lunch,” she said, matter-of-factly. “The expense accounts are in that file cabinet. The photocopier is over there. You can either come back in an hour or let me lock you in the office while I have lunch.”
Her rare invitation to browse through anything I wanted told me instantly that she was a victim or enemy. After I finished copying everything and she returned, I invited her to dinner so she could tell me all about how incompetent her judge was.
Don’t overlook them—victims and enemies. They can be the cat’s meow!
Some of those closest to the person you’re investigating might be prepared to assist
6: Follow the money
I’m certainly not the first journalist to recommend you follow the dollar, the euro or the pound. As trite as it sounds, you must always remember to follow the money trail.
There’s almost no investigation where their isn’t a distinct and separate money trail.
The murderer had to buy the gun from someone. The minister who ran off with the church funds had to buy a plane ticket from someone and will no doubt spend the money somewhere. The child molester had to have phone bills so he could call his victim. The profits from the drug sale had to be laundered somewhere.
This is where public records can often be helpful. It’s not difficult to find out how much the car he’s driving cost, how much the house he’s living in cost, what the taxes are on that plane he owns.
Maybe he filed for bankruptcy or was sued and his income tax records ended up in the case file as exhibits.
Look for pay offs
Keep in mind that money can come in the form of other things.
A nice piece of property, for example makes a great bribe. Want to pay off a politician for signing legislation favorable to your business? Just give him some land that will one day be valuable.
Of course, you need to put the title in the name of his brother-in-law or his cousin or his attorney—as long as his name isn’t on it. When he’s out of office and the statute of limitations is past, you can then transfer the title directly to him.
And don’t forget the family trust. The name of the trust doesn’t have to be the same as the family surname. John McMillan can call his family trust the Butterfly Family Trust.
It’s not the easiest thing to do, but try to imagine the flow of money and then imagine who might see it, touch it, process it, store it, manage it or spend it.
As trite as it sounds, you must always remember to follow the money trail.
7: Don’t embrace obstacles
Too many young journalists or investigators carry bad habits from school or from home into their new profession.
It was really easy to say “My dog ate my homework” if you didn’t do your work. The computer always seems to crash with all of your investigative notes irrecoverably inside.
There’s always a traffic jam on the freeway when you were supposed be somewhere you didn’t want to be.
Admit to it. You were happy your alarm clock didn’t go off and you had to miss that event you really didn’t want to attend.
We’ve all done it. What I want to alert you to is the time you did it because you were afraid you’d fail at whatever you were doing. If you complete the assignment and fail, they’ll find out you’re not as good as you told them you were.
But if some other independent obstacle appears and prevents you from completing the job, you can never fail. It wasn’t your fault.
This can be a deadly practice – deadly to your career anyway.
It’s up to you to ask yourself if you really want to risk failure. Are the excuses you’re telling yourself something you actually believe? When others do it you recognize it right away. It takes a lot of effort to do it yourself.
“I’d have ridden that bull for 20 seconds,” you might say, “if I hadn’t come down with the flew that morning. Too bad I wasn’t able to ride.” See how this statement can make people think you’re a rodeo king. But if you get on the bull and he immediately stomps you into the ground, the world will know you’re not that good.
There’s no reason you shouldn’t be good at gathering information.
I like to think of finding the answer to the mystery as being like a martial artist putting his hand through a stack of wood. I’m told he visualizes his hand on the other side of the boards and it goes there. If he visualizes the board—the obstacle—it will always hold strong and he’ll have broken knuckles.
Don’t say to yourself, “I wonder if I’ll get the information.” If you say that, you’ll surely not get the information. Rather, say to yourself, “I know I’ll find the information. I’m anxious to see how I do it.”