What drew me to journalism — and what keeps me in it — is the idea that my work can have an impact and change lives. But that kind of reporting is not easy. I found out just what it takes to pull off true investigative journalism at a training session hosted by Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) at the UO School of Journalism and Communication’s (SOJC) George S. Turnbull Portland Center.
I was one of five SOJC students who made the trip to Portland May 4-5 to learn how to write our own investigative stories from the professionals. We spent two days alongside other journalists from around the Pacific Northwest going through data journalism, public records and best practices of investigative reporting with IRE’s Jaimi Dowdell and Beth Daley. Dowdell is a senior training director with IRE and was previously a computer-assisted reporting editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Daley is a reporter at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and a former Boston Globe environment reporter.
Throughout the training, Dowdell emphasized the importance of getting a “document state of mind.”
“Data doesn’t lie,” she said. With any story, we were told to ask ourselves, “How can I quantify this?” Dowdell told us to always double-check the math that officials give us, ask for proof of any claims and question everything.
To demonstrate the importance of her advice, Dowdell shared an example. Last year, authorities in Texas reported that racial profiling did not lead to any traffic stops in the state, and most news agencies took their word for it. However, a couple journalists with KXAN decided to look into the data and found that authorities were fudging the facts by ticketing minority drivers — mostly Hispanic — as white. All they had to do was look at the names: The top five surnames on traffic tickets were Smith, Garcia, Martinez, Hernandez, Gonzalez and Rodriguez.
That story is an example of good investigative journalism, and it comes from questioning everything, Dowdell said.
Over the handful of hours we spent working with data and discussing tricks of the trade, I discovered more about investigative journalism than I thought possible. I learned that organizing your data in a spreadsheet and manipulating it in different ways allows you to start to craft a narrative that will guide your investigation. I learned to make a timeline for every story, to keep track of every person you talk to and when you talked to them, and to give yourself deadlines every week, no matter how small.
“You want to figure out how [a problem] can be solved,” she said.
As a journalist, I want to make a difference and tell the stories that matter. I want to use my skills and resources as an investigative reporter to serve the public as a watchdog who exposes truth that impacts real people, like Daley said.
The impact of investigative reporting is all around us, from the coverage of the Flint water crisis in Michigan to the groundbreaking exposé of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church chronicled in the movie “Spotlight.” I want to write those stories that lead to changes in the world. And thanks to IRE, I’m one step closer to doing so.
Story by Francesca Fontana ’17 (2015 Snowden Intern)
Photos by Dahlia Bazzaz ’16 (2014 Snowden Intern)