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Staying On Track

By Mike McGraw
The Kansas City Star

This is a "Collected Wisdom" centerpiece story from The IRE Journal, Fall 2009

I’ve been a reporter for nearly 40 years, with most of that time spent as an investigative
reporter. I love what I do and have never wanted to do anything else.
Three things turned me on to investigative reporting: Covering organized labor
in Kansas City in the 1970s and 1980s, during the zenith of Teamsters Union
corruption (and seeing how dues-paying union members got sold down the
river by their leaders); going to IRE conferences in the 1970s and 1980s and
being amazed that these bright, successful journalists would actually share their
secrets with me; and reading a wonderful book by the late Jonathan Kwitny
called “Vicious Circles, The Mafia in the Marketplace,” published in 1979.
At age 61, I’ve learned a lot of lessons about my craft – some learned far too late;
others learned early on, but not followed nearly often enough. Here are a few:

Getting psyched for the story

Especially now and especially in newspapers, it’s hard for some reporters to get
psyched for a story. I’ve seldom had that problem, and I think the reasons are
that I don’t often hang at the water cooler swapping gossip. It’s depressing. It’s
counterproductive. It’s a waste of time, and it’s often inaccurate. Besides, it’s more
fun to be out of the office. And remember, it’s not about some editor who’s pissed
you off; it’s not about you and the fact that you work too hard for too little money;
it’s not about a former friend or colleague who got laid off; and it’s not about the
corporate bean counters who just cut your salary. It’s about the story. Go after it.
Become immersed in it. You’ll be happier in the long run and do a better job.

Bootstrapping your way to success

Use multiple sources simultaneously to bootstrap, or triangulate, your way to
success. For example, I was recently seeking an unnamed woman peripherally
involved in a human trafficking case. She had allegedly married an immigrant
trafficker to help keep him here legally. That’s all I knew. I used the immigrant’s
unique name to find his bride’s name in county marriage license records. I then
used her name and address to find her cell phone number on documents she filed
to get municipally-owned utilities turned on in her home. She ended up, through
her attorney, providing great little nuggets about the trafficker’s lifestyle.

Cultivating sources

Never lie. Never misrepresent yourself. Allow sources to go off the record (you can
usually get them back on later) and always tell sources they will have a chance to
rebut what is said about them – then follow through. Those three rules, which of
course are not universally followed, have helped me cultivate lots of helpful sources
– and helped keep me out of trouble when my stories are published. Treat people
humanely, and approach them as one human being to another. Find some common
ground, be open, and explain what you are doing and why. Keep your mouth shut
and your ears open. Lawyers and lawsuits and keyword legal search engines are
great places to find and cultivate sources. I spend a lot of time on Pacer and various
state court search engines. (LexisOne is a great, free keyword legal search engine.)
Unions and rank-and-file workers are also good sources that are often overlooked. File
FOIA requests often. Ask for minutes of meetings, then contact the participants directly.
And keep an open mind. You’ll often find that, indeed, something did go wrong, but
what really happened will be seven degrees off from what you thought.

Managing the investigation

Everybody’s brain and organizational methods are unique. For me, keeping multiple
electronic text files is helpful. I often stay late or come in on weekends just to do file
maintenance and reorganize. I may reorganize my files three or four times during a
long project. I always have a “to do” file working – calls I want or need to make. I
always keep a separate source file (and later fold it into my master source file). Then I
separate the information (interviews) by category or subject heading and make sure to
use certain key words in each file so I can find the information later on a system-wide
search (Copernic Desktop Search is a great system-wide free search engine). Later, if I
am doing a multi-day project, I’ll reorganize files by day. I often go back and re-read all
text files and go over all my documents again several times (they take on new meaning
as you gain more insight). I also keep a separate “electronic file cabinet” of all unscanned
paper files, using key words in the descriptions to make the information easier to find
later. After a particularly good interview, write a paragraph or two in story form and
store them all in a separate “story” file. Chronologies are almost always worthwhile.

Working on your writing

For way too long, I didn’t pay much attention to my writing style and believed that if
I worked my butt off to find stuff out, then readers were going to be willing to wade
through my dense prose. Wrong. A great editor taught me – way late in the game – that
good writing is half the battle or more. Just a few simple rules make a big difference
and can result in snagging lots more readers than you’d otherwise attract: Don’t spend
too much time on any one issue and keep the train moving so readers can’t get off;
use active verbs and describe some physical action every few paragraphs to keep the
reader interested; use one source for one finding and then move on, avoiding going
back to the same source later to present a different finding.

Verifying

I can’t stress this one enough. Verify, re-verify and then verify again. Verify every name,
every fact, every line. Go back to original notes or recordings, not earlier versions
of your story. If you’re not sure, then go back to the source and go over it again and
again. Let your sources know how it will be worded in the story and make sure they
agree with the context. I don’t read entire stories to all sources, but I might read or go
over some lengthy sections, especially if they are highly technical. That beats the hell
out of being wrong.

Mike McGraw is a special projects reporter for The Kansas City Star. He also worked at The
Hartford (Conn.) Courant and The Des Moines Register in Iowa. He has covered a wide
range of issues including organized labor, agribusiness, meatpacking, food safety and art
world fraud. He is a former member of the IRE Board of Directors and a contributor to IRE’s
“The Reporter’s Handbook.” His awards include the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting
and two George Polk awards.

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