Veteran investigative journalist Cheryl W. Thompson, long-standing reporter for the Washington Post and now senior editor of National Public Radio, recently attended the 18th African Investigative Journalism Conference to share some important insights gleaned over a stellar decades-long career with delegates.
Thompson was part of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting on the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She has written extensively on law enforcement and police brutality in the US, and her investigative series that traced guns used to kill more than 500 police officers won her an Emmy, National Headliner, IRE and several other awards.
For Thompson, a good investigative piece centres around four key areas of preparation:
1) Gathering records and data
2) Landing (and nailing) interviews
3) Cultivating sources
4) Staying organised
Gathering records and data
“Gathering documents, especially like court records and transcripts, is key to any investigative article. Look for anything that might help your story. Set up Google Alerts for specific keywords relating to your investigations. Build a database. Speak to people, especially lawyers and experts,” said Thompson, adding that a good checklist of questions to ask yourself is:
1) What documents exist?
2) Where do they exist?
3) How can I get them?
4) How long would it take to get those records?
5) What sources do I have who might be able to help me?
6) If I don’t have any sources familiar with my topic, how can I develop them in a timely manner?
Thompson recalled an investigation she undertook using this method in 2017 for the Washington Post about the storied Howard University Hospital. The investigation revealed a multitude of problems taking place there, including that it had the highest rate of death lawsuits per bed than any other D.C. hospital.
In her report, Thompson reviewed more than 675 medical malpractice and wrongful-death lawsuits filed since 2006, involving six D.C. hospitals.
“For years, I noticed that no one was paying attention to the Howard University Hospital – the preeminent black hospital in DC which now treats a lot of poor patients. When people aren’t paying attention to something, as a journalist you may want to look at it – there’s probably something going on there.
“It all started with the story of a man who was found unconscious outside of his home in 2006. A neighbour called the paramedics, and when they arrived, they thought he was just a drunk because they smelled alcohol on him. The ambulance took him to Howard University Hospital, where staff left him on a gurney in the hallway for hours, and he died. They thought he was some older, white drunk, but it turns out he had been assaulted while taking a walk after dinner, and was actually veteran New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum.
“This was 10 years before I [began my investigations]. I thought if they could leave someone like that to die, what would they do to someone who looks like me? (other people of colour).”
Thompson recalled approaching Martin Baron, editor of the Post at the time, with the story idea.
“He asked, ‘Why are we doing this story, and why are we doing it now?’ And this is another good tip for journalists – always have a good answer when your editor asks that question. My answer was, ‘It’s been 10 years [since the death of Rosenbaum] – plenty of time to make changes to operations. Let’s do an anniversary piece on it and see if anything has changed.’
“I spent forever in that windowless basement of the court records room reviewing over 650 malpractice lawsuits tied to Howard University Hospital. It paid out at least $27million in claims, and that was only in 20 of the cases filed.
“My point is – this is a story that can be done anywhere in the world. Start by comparing the thing you want to investigate to other institutions like it. That will give you the first glimpse into what’s going on. Speak to lawyers, doctors, experts, people who have quit a job in frustration. These will all aid the investigation.
“But remember, while records are so important, humanising your story is even more so,” said Thompson. And part of humanising a story is built on conducting effective interviews.
Tips for effective interviews
1. Be prepared
Make sure you do your secondary sourcing and research the subject’s background. You may only get one chance at an interview, so have written questions and make notes to yourself regarding specific topics you need to cover. Also, dress appropriately.
Conduct your interview in person. It’s easy for someone to hang up on you; it’s harder for them to walk away. Find a place where your subject feels comfortable – favourite restaurant, park, etc. Leave it up to them. And avoid email interviews. They’re sterile and don’t allow for interaction.
3. Ask good questions
Asking “yes” or “no” questions should only occur if you’re looking for a specific answer, i.e., “Did you take the money?” Otherwise, think about how you structure the questions to elicit complete responses. Your goal is to be able to tell a story.
4. Stay on the record
Don’t let your subject, particularly public figures, talk off the record unless there’s really a good reason. Even then, you call the shots so that you control the interview. If you must go off the record, make sure you and your subject are clear on the ground rules. Does “off the record” mean that you can’t use the information, or that you can use it if you get confirmation from someone else? Does “on background” mean that you can use the information and attribute it to a source?
5. Establish a rapport
Put your subject at ease, particularly with people who aren’t used to being interviewed. Don’t immediately whip out your notebook or cellphone to record or videotape. Wait until they are ready. Find a common denominator to help relax your subject. Maybe chat about a photograph in the room.
6. Shut up
Legendary Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward said, “Let the silence suck out the truth.” It’s a term used in the CIA. “It’s the hardest thing to do – to shut up. It is often the most effective,” said Woodward. Also, never interrupt your subject while they are talking. Wait at least five seconds after they pause before asking another question. They may be in the middle of a thought, and you want them to finish. They may say something profound.
7. Be persistent
Your job is to get your questions answered. If your subject avoids answering a question, ask it again until you are satisfied with the answer. Rephrase, reword. Don’t give up.
8. Think chronologically
People often lose track of their tale, so don’t be afraid to guide your subject and ask, “What happened next?” This is especially helpful when your story is complex.
9. Details matter
This may seem trite in an investigative story, but details help with your storytelling. Knowing that the politician was accused of taking bribes and kickbacks is great, but isn’t it better to say that, “As the FBI pounded on the door of their two-storey brick colonial home, his wife grabbed the ill-gotten money – nearly $80,000 – and stuffed it in her bra and panties seconds before authorities came to arrest her.” This really happened.
10. The big finish
Before you leave the interview, always ask: “Is there something else I need to know?” It allows your subject to tell you whatever they want. Remember to get contact information – cell number, home number, email etc. You may need to follow up.
For Thompson, cultivating sources for an investigation always starts with the people most likely to talk. These include whistle blowers, people who have been wronged, people who have quit a job because they didn’t like how the company was run, and so on.
“Politicians have enemies. If you’re covering a story on a corrupt politician, find out who their opponents are. All of these will give you a good starting point to investigate the claims they make.
“Another tip is always let the people you’re interviewing know you’re talking to other people, and they’re on the record (if they are). There’s something about the human psyche, where they’ll feel more open and relaxed if they know they’re not the only person talking,” added Thompson.
Next, find knowledgeable people. Don’t only speak to sources who deal in rumours and innuendo. You want people who know what’s going on, or who can point you to other experts.
“Very importantly, you also want to get to know your sources, and let them get to know you,” said Thompson. “It’s all about bonding. Call them even when you don’t need something. Invite them to coffee, invite them to lunch, but you must always pay the bill,” she emphasised. “People tend to let their guard down in a relaxed setting. Don’t press them with interview questions, sprinkle them in between. You’ll find they open up about all sorts of things when they’re relaxed, and they appreciate you making an effort.
“Developing sources is an investment. Don’t be surprised if a source wants to check out your previous work before they talk to you.”
Thompson said she’s a believer in both spreadsheets and file folders.
“I keep everything electronically, but I’m a big fan of keeping paper records of important documents. I also create a spreadsheet of everyone with whom I’d like to speak or have already spoken with. Investigations can get so complicated and in-depth that sometimes I forget who I’ve spoken to, so I like to keep a record of that, as well as what we spoke about.
“Finally, always transcribe your tape, handwritten notes and so on immediately, and note whether the interview was in person, via Zoom, over the phone, etc.,” said Thompson. “I add these transcriptions to the binder or file folder of that particular investigation, with tabs to help easily identify each interview or each document type. It then becomes so easy to flip through the file of an investigation and find whatever information you need.”
The 18th African Investigative Conference took place at Wits University from 31 October to 2 November and attracted 375 delegates from over 50 countries around the world.