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Writing the investigative story

By Châu Mai

After spending weeks, months or even years to do an investigation, you want to write an interesting story that makes readers really want to read it.

“Your goal is to pull people in and your second goal is to keep them there,” Seattle Times investisgative reporter Ken Armstrong said. 

He and Steve Fainaru, a senior writer with ESPN’s investigative and enterprise unit, shared their experience and tips in “Writing the investigative story.”

Fainaru, a 2008  Pulitzer Prize winner for International Reporting, said the main thing he learned from covering private security contractors in Iraq was to take the time to exhaustively outline the story with as much detail as possible.

“Outlines help define what you want to say, and where you want to say it,” he said. “The more extensive, the better.”

Armstrong, who won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for investigate reporting, said if circumstances allow, write a story not an exposé and create suspense. He used the story “Two cops, an ax and many questions on Bainbridge” he wrote with Jonathan Martin, The Seattle Times, as an example.

It is about the death of a mentally ill man killed by police when police came to his house to see if he was okay.

Instead of writing it as a hard news story, he and Martin chose to introduce readers to all people related and their backgrounds.

Armstrong said by doing these things, they put two trains on the same track and they were heading towards each other. That left readers wanting to see how events unfolded, how the ax was to be used.

He also recommended using dialogue. Try to avoid bullets and formula, and sometimes using the pronoun “we” to “build a relationship with readers. You let them know that you have a shared interest,” he said.

When approaching the story, he suggested to inform a debate not describe it because “you want to get to where the truth lies.”

If you want to reach a bold conclusion after doing all that reporting, state it boldly.

“Don’t tiptoe,” Armstrong said. “You are doing readers a favor not giving any doubt about what the reporting has found.”

The five-time IRE winner also talked about one of the biggest challenges in writing an investigative story, which is “the goal to be transparent and what information we’re replying upon with the statement we are making.”

The problem is that attributions are getting in the way of the story and really kill the narrative. Armstrong recommended remove attributions from the narrative, and park them some place where people can find them.

Avoid letting the story dense with data and numbers, he said.

To improve his investigative writing skill, Armstrong’s tip was to try hard to write different kinds of stories such as profiles, feature stories, long-form narratives, books and fiction. He said this can help you avoid the trap of casting people in simplistic roles: villain or victim.

“All of those kills you are developing will come into play when you are writing your next investigative story,” he said. “Don’t limit yourself to investigative stories.”

Châu Mai is a graduate student at Emerson College Department of Journalism.

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