by Project for Excellence in Journalism
Bob Woodward of the Washington Post says to fulfill the watchdog principle responsibly, he tries to keep an open mind and see where the facts take him. "You might start a story thinking you are going to look at how the city health department administers vaccines, but ... find that the story's really about the city's mismanagement in general.... Look at as much as you can in every direction." To do so, "Some of the things I do are build a chronology, try to talk to everybody and interview them repeatedly."
Loretta Tofani, a reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer, relies on the power of talking to potential sources face-to-face and spending a lot of time with them. In a story about a pattern of widespread rape inside a Maryland jail, which she wrote while at the Washington Post, she uncovered crimes that were occurring literally under the nose of law officers - crimes widely known to the police and judges. She won a Pulitzer Prize for the story.
To get it, she spent months of her own time in the evenings after work doggedly knocking on doors in order to engage some of the most reluctant possible witnesses to talk to her, and she was able to produce a series of stories that documented the prevalence of rape inside the Prince George's Detention Center in Maryland. In the end, Tofani produced what her editors thought impossible - a story documenting the crimes by quoting, by name and on the record, the perpetrators, the victims, and responsible officials who should have acted to prevent the crimes from ever taking place.
As Tofani said, when the articles were published, all the needed documentation was "given to the government basically on a silver platter... It had everything. It had medical records. It had the victims\' names. It had therapists\' names." Public disclosure of the information forced the government to change the system that allowed the rapes to occur. In the end the government convicted all the rapists.
Susan Kelleher of the Seattle Times (formerly of the Orange County Register in California), says she discusses at length with her sources beforehand everything that is involved in an investigative report. This way, they know she is honest and also what they're getting into. "Before anybody participates with me in a story in the sense of a source," she said, "I tell them how I work. I tell them they have to go on the record. I tell them I am going to be asking other people about them, that even though I find them really nice people, I am going to have to check them out.... I say to them, 'Once you agree to talk to me, that's it. You don't really have control, but you do have control to the degree you want to participate. And once you are on the record, if there's something you don't want me to know, then don't tell me because it's going to be on the record.' "
This level of honesty with sources has allowed Kelleher to uncover some remarkable stories. One exposed abuses at an infertility clinic where some doctors were secretly, and illegally, taking extra eggs from their patients and selling them to other patients. Kelleher's story was meticulously documented with medical records and on-the-record information by people involved in the process, and also won a Pulitzer Prize.
Michael Hiltzik, the investigative business reporter for the Los Angeles Times, says the single most important technique in his career is "get[ting] the documents." The rest of it is fine, he says, the confidential sources, secret meetings, "all the decor of investigative reporting you see in Hollywood. But the whole aim is you must have everything documented. The whole point of dealing with sources is to get them to point you to things you can get in black and white." Hiltzik and his partner, Chuck Phillips, won the Pulitzer Prize in part for a story exposing that the Grammy Awards, which are supposedly for charity, generate huge income but little charitable proceeds. The Grammy organizers threatened the reporters with legal action and more. "They couldn't lay a hand on us because everything was written down in documents. When it is documented, all the 'bloviating' and threats are for naught. You are on solid ground."