Learning from prize-winning journalism: tips for executing an investigative journalism project

In Poynter’s new e-book, “Secrets of Prize-Winning Journalism,” we highlight and examine 10 award-winning works from 2013 through interviews with their creators. Starting with the “secrets” shared by reporters and editors, we’ve extracted some great lessons on producing outstanding journalism.

In the first installment, we explored lessons for covering breaking news stories based on The Denver Post’s coverage of the Aurora theater shootings.

In this our second installment, we share tips for executing an investigative journalism project based on the Chicago Tribune series “Playing with Fire,” which earned a Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, Scripps Howard Foundation Award for Public Service Reporting, Hillman Prize for Newspaper Journalism, Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Newspapers, National Headliner Award, Gerald Loeb Award, and Pulitzer Prize finalist honor.

Tribune reporters Patricia Callahan, Sam Roe and Michael Hawthorne spent two years researching and writing the expose on the dangers and ineffectiveness of flame retardants used in household furniture, including baby cribs.

Poynter affiliate faculty member Chip Scanlan interviewed the investigative team via email to deconstruct their research and the reporting techniques they used to create the prize-winning series.

Use records to backup interviews

Callahan viewed each record in the Tribune investigation as a puzzle piece that made little sense on its own. It was the writers’ job to expose the real story. She said one sentence in “Playing with Fire” took months of reporting.

Roe told Scanlan: “Documents help you establish what’s true and what’s not.”

His colleague, Hawthorne depends on FOIA requests because they illuminate “what officials actually think, not what has been sanitized by public affairs staffers and political appointees.”

Tip: When a source makes a statement based on a fact, ask for the data or evidence he or she has to back it up. Verify the accuracy of statements and records with data from multiple sources. When working with government agencies, request public information with FOIA requests.

Interview sources in person whenever possible

Investigations need to present findings in a compelling way. In “Playing with Fire,” Callahan, Hawthorne and Roe were blessed with interesting characters who helped them flesh out a narrative of how flame retardants wound up in the bodies of every American.

For example, Callahan found value in flying to California to attend a hearing in person, rather than watching it from afar, to capture essential details about the characters driving the strong narrative thread.

“Had I simply watched a video of the hearing, I would not have picked up on the sway that [the subject] held. On tape, you can’t hear the audience’s gasp,” said Callahan.

Tip: While it is not always possible to interview someone in person, tools like Skype let you see your sources and pick up on their body language and expressions. This results in a more authentic engagement that can lead the interview down an unexpected path and illuminate critical details. An in-person interview is better than a video interview; a video interview is better than a phone interview; a phone interview is better than an email interview.

Strong interviewing skills are critical

Roe stressed the importance of the interview. “Stories often rise and fall on the ability of the reporter to go toe to toe with the subjects on their investigations,” he said in an interview with Chip Scanlan for the e-book, “Secrets of Prize-winning Journalism.”

Tip: Callahan told Scanlan that she usually ends her interviews with an open-ended question, “What should I have asked you but didn’t?”

Recognize the impact your story has on the community

Callahan said “Playing with Fire” inspired substantive reform. As a result of the series, California no longer requires flame retardants in furniture and many baby products — for the first time since 1975. Also, the EPA launched an investigation of the chemicals highlighted in the series. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said it would test babies’ exposure to flame retardants from crib mattresses.

A key U.S. Senate committee voted to overhaul the nation’s chemical safety law. Because of the tougher regulatory climate, the two largest manufacturers of chlorinated tris, the family of fire retardant chemicals found in baby mattresses, ­vowed to end production.

Tip: After you publish, continue to follow the story. Stay in touch with sources: What changes have they noticed as a result of your work? In addition to indicating the impact you made, the source may continue to provide information you could use in a follow-up story.

Related: Learning from prize-winning journalism: how to cover a breaking news story

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  • King-Stanley-Krauter

    There have been many investigative news reports on our federal tax laws since the 1986 reforms and everyone knows that our tax laws have been repeatedly corrupted by lobbyists and special interest groups. But nothing has ever been done to stop Congress from creating more tax deductions for every lobbyist with a campaign contribution. So reporters and their award winning investigative journalism are never going to be as effective as they could be until they start communicating like teachers instead of entertainers However, reporters are not interested in communicating more effectively because they think they are too important to adjust their work schedule to accommodate voters.