So you want to be an "investigative journalist."
Let's make one thing clear: If you're a reporter, it doesn't matter what beat you are working -- you could be covering the local PTA and school board meeting, the municipal sewage/water authority, cops and robbers or the sports desk. There is always an opportunity to be an investigative journalist.
The problem is that most "journalists" think they have to be assigned to a political desk to do any meaningful work. But oftentimes, the stories of corruption are sitting right in front of you. You just aren't being observant enough -- or your antenna may be so tuned in to one direction of the wind that you may be missing the storm brewing behind you.
I started thinking about this because of a personal circumstance that has nothing to do with my freelance writing job. Human nature is human nature. And eventually, someone's dark side will surface if it's something they are trying to hide. It's just a matter of time before you put the pieces together.
Here are a few telltale signs that I've learned along the way:
1. The person people trust the most is the person you should suspect the most. I know, it sounds counterintuitive. But, ironically, the most trusted person in the room usually is the person hiding something. Think about it -- pedophiles aren't usually creeps hanging out in dark corners. They're priests, Boy Scout leaders, classroom teachers. Ever hear of Jerry Sandusky? Google him if you haven't.
Did you know that Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ, was the treasurer for the group of disciples and embezzled their money? Anyone who handles money for someone else is highly trusted. Always look in that direction for clues.
I had a case when I was working at The York Dispatch. We were a union shop, and the reporters had to pay union dues every month. Ours were $40 per reporter. I was 27-29 while I was there, and I was making a paltry $27,000 per year, so $40 per month was a lot of money for me.
I asked the union treasurer -- who was the newspaper's retired librarian -- to bring in the union accounting books so I could see how the money was being spent. It just didn't seem very logical to me. Where was the money going? She was about 75 years old and very beloved in this newsroom. She refused to bring in the books. So I refused to give her my dues. Things came to a head. People who loved this little old lady told me I was a big meanie (well, they used OTHER words, but use your imagination, and you've got it...) and that I should just pay the dues. I said the little old lady should bring in the books if there was nothing to hide.
To make a long story short, after a big brewhaha, the union treasurer confessed that she had been embezzling the funds. It gets better: She had a gambling addiction and had taken the money to Atlantic City, N.J., on weekends and lost thousands of dollars. She had been maintaining two sets of books to hide it.
So, if you're covering a local municipality, school district, whatever ... that leads us to point number 2:
2. Always ask for budgets. Don't say to me, "But Heidi, I only scored C-minus in math, my entire time in school. I'm a gifted writer, but I'm not an accountant."
You want to be an investigative reporter? Get a calculator.
Ask for budgets. Ask questions about the budgets. If you don't know how to add and subtract, get a tutor. You will never uncover anything unless you're willing to go into the world of numbers.
3. The people who are pointing fingers are usually the people hiding something. I'm not talking about whistleblowers here. I'm talking about people who are in a collective huff -- the people who want to see another person or another group of people fall. These are the people who are so busy pointing out the faults of others that they can't see their own faults.
Usually, this type of story is the easiest one to cover. The only thing you have to do is let them hang themselves with their words. The minute you get an invitation to cover a big "event" where a group of people is "exposing" the wrongdoings of someone else, bring your tape recorder and transcribe EVERYTHING that is said. You can probably get the other side of the story very easily just by the way Group A portrays Group B. Usually you can anticipate what Group B's response will be, because the things Group A throws around will start to sound so ridiculous that their credibility will dissolve like vapor.
4. If people start acting defensive when you ask questions, you're on to something. People with nothing to hide will be forthright. They may seem taken aback by questions, but they will always be eager to show you that they have done nothing wrong.
On the other hand, people with something to hide will immediately put up their defenses. They'll do everything conceivable to avoid answering questions, will cast blame elsewhere, and may even accuse you of being a hack journalist.
Don't let that throw you. Just stay with your line of questioning, which will lead to point number 5:
5. Somewhere in the group that is hiding something, there is a person who wants the truth to be told. I have lost count of the number of times during my newspaper and AP wire service careers when I would get an anonymous note or phone call. The person on the other end would say something like, "I was in the room when you were asking questions of so-and-so, and they weren't telling you everything. I can tell you the truth, but you have to keep my name out of it."
Sometimes these notes would be sandwiched between my wiper blades and car windshield. (When that happens, it's not only freaky to know that people know your car, but also your schedule. And it also means you've nailed the story.)
Once you get to that point in your information-gathering, go to your editor for next steps. Proceeding ahead on a story of this nature requires the backing of your publication. Do not do this alone in a vacuum. You'll want everybody on board -- including the publisher, who may have personal community ties that could threaten the story's publishing. You need the publisher in your corner especially.
This was a quick primer, but if you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments section. This can be a complicated issue for anyone covering news, but with practice in studying human behavior, you may be winning your investigative trophy in no time.
Heidi Russell is a 24-year veteran of the newspaper, AP and magazine arenas. She covers issues affecting the military, real estate, entrepreneurs, culturally diverse executives, and job hunters. You can read more from her on her blog: heidirusselljournalist.blogspot.com