Seven Basic Rules for Investigative Reporting

By RJI on October 11, 2006 0 Comments

by Clark Mollenhoff, Reporter - Des Moines Register

  1. Avoid Political Partisanship. You will cut off 50 percent of your effectiveness if you investigate only one political party or even have a special leaning toward investigations of one party.
  2. In seeking facts and answers make a conscientious and determined effort to be equally aggressive whether the public officials involved are people you admire or distrust. You will do your friend a favor by asking him tough, direct questions because you will be demonstrating that he will be held accountable.
  3. Know your subject, whether it is a problem of city, county, state or federal government or whether it involves big labor or big business. If you are in a highly technical area or are dealing with a complicated fact situation, you may make unintentional mistakes simply because you did not understand what you heard.
  4. Don't exaggerate or distort the facts of the law. Efforts to sensationalize will discredit your investigation in the long run.
  5. Deal straight across the board with your sources and investigation subjects alike. Don't use tricks or pretense to get people off guard. Don't use a false name or identity or impersonate a law enforcement officer. If you deal straight with your subjects of your investigation, it is quite likely that they will be your best sources of inside information at some time in the future.
  6. Do not violate the law unless you willing to take the consequences. Any time you violate the law to obtain information you develop a vulnerability that can destroy your credibility as well as the story you are pursuing.
  7. Use direct evidence when writing a story that reflects adversely upon anyone and give that person an opportunity for a full response to the questions raised. Direct testimony is often unreliable, even when the witness has no personal interest, and the chances for error increase geometrically as your source is removed one, two or three steps from the event.

Clark Mollenhoff was a lawyer, reporter, columnist, and educator who won the 1958 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for uncovering racketeering and misuse of funds by some labor unions. During his long career, spent mostly at the Des Moines Register but with a notable stop as a special counsel to President Richard Nixon, Mollenhoff won 25 major journalism awards and wrote a dozen books. He died in 1991. Each year the Institute on Political Journalism (IPJ) presents the Clark Mollenhoff Awards for Excellence in Investigative Reporting.