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Investigating breaking news with records, data and compassion

By Zachary Matson and Gwen Girsdansky

Some reporters love the opportunity to spend months or even years working on a story, taking the time to develop a stable of sources and marinate in thousands of pages of documents.

Sometimes the news is not so cooperative. By its nature, breaking news is fraught with chaos and initial information.

But investigative reporting and breaking news are not incompatible. Breaking news provides opportunities for in-depth reporting on topics that may have not been on the radar.

By pre-planning, identifying available documents and databases and requesting as much information as possible as early as possible, you can get an early jump on the story and a lead over competitors.

Scott Friedman, from KXAS – Dallas/Fort Worth, suggested being prepared for the kinds of major events that could happen in your community by knowing who and where to go for quick information.

He said his team’s goal is to add depth to coverage within the first three hours. One way that they accomplish this is to go get documents right away.

After the West, Texas plant explosion, Friedman and his team immediately retrieved all available online information, tracked down an owner of the plant for comment and left messages with all agencies that have relevant documents. A producer of his was at the lead agency’s door first thing the next morning.

“Don’t assume that it will take forever to get records,” Friedman said. Sometimes breaking news helps you get things more quickly because agencies realize the requested records pertain to something the public wants to know quickly, and often the different agencies involved may not have gotten on the same page.

Chris Davis, an editor at the Tampa Bay Times, says to “flood the zone” by putting reporters everywhere. The goal is get news out in a timely manner, when people are still attached to the story. He discussed the “zigzag” principle: when most reporters and editors zig, you want to zag. Davis mentioned that one way to do that is to look at the broader issue and survey the data.

Arwa Damon, from CNN, also stressed the importance of developing human sources on the ground as quickly as possible. She covers conflict zones and said that one of the most important parts of covering breaking news is to distinguish actual eyewitnesses from people that are passing along second hand information.


Zachary Matson and Gwen Girsdansky are journalism students at the University of Missouri

109 Lee Hills Hall, Missouri School of Journalism   |   221 S. Eighth St., Columbia, MO 65201   |   573-882-2042   |   |   Privacy Policy
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