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Watchdog Wisdom at Duke University

By Jaimi Dowdell

IRE Training Director

Just as schools run students through drills for tornadoes and fires, journalists need to do drills to be prepared. One way to incorporate quick-hit, investigative techniques into your daily reporting is to practice and know what you and your newsroom are going to do when faced with breaking news, said Stuart Watson of WCNC Charlotte. This advice was just one example of the many nuggets of wisdom more than 60 attendees received at a recent Better Watchdog Workshop at Duke University.

Other samples of the great advice offered over the weekend include:

  • When making open records requests, don't put the request in your own name. Rather, put the organization's name behind it to give your requests more authority, said Joe Neff of the News & Observer.
  • To get advanced notice of big layoffs in your area, Chris Roush of the University f North Carolina recommends regularly requesting Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) filings. There are limitations and exclusions to the Act, but in general, these filings are designed to give workers and communities notice of plant closings and large layoffs 60 days in advance. Used correctly, they can give you advanced notice of layoffs and shutdowns in your community.
  • If someone in public relations offers you information, don't get excited and let your brain freeze up over what they've given you. Rather, look at what they aren't saying and what they haven't given you, said Pat Stith, formerly of the News & Observer. This is where you'll find the real story.
  • To get the most out of an interview, do your best to try not to fill the awkward silences that follow questions, said Ames Alexander of the The Charlotte Observer.
  • When backgrounding or digging up information, try thinking about your sources like high definition television, said Watson. If you have only one source, the picture is going to look like one blurry dot, but if you triangulate and use many sources you get a better, clearer picture.

Find tipsheets from these and other speakers at the workshop here.

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