June 10, 2022

As she was chipping away at a story about decades of rape and sexual allegations against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein, New York Times investigative reporter Jodi Kantor found herself fine-tuning what she would say to famous actresses when she called them to share their stories on the record.

Even with two decades of journalism experience, Kantor would slip into the bathroom at the Times building to practice. “What do I want to say?” she asked herself.

“I felt like I was doing OK. My pitches were not bad and they were getting some results,” Kantor said. “Rose McGowan spoke to me, Ashley Judd spoke to me, Gwyneth Paltrow spoke to me, but I still felt like I haven’t nailed the exact language because I felt that I had a very narrow window to try to get someone to trust me on the phone.”

Her editor, Rebecca Corbett, suggested she reach out to Megan Twohey, a fairly new Times reporter, for advice. Twohey, who was on maternity leave, shared her experience in speaking with alleged victims of sexual abuse.

“She said that she had a line that she used, which was ‘I can’t change what’s happened to you in the past, but if we work together, we may be able to put your story to some productive use for other people,’” Kantor said.

For Kantor — whose previous work spurred change for Starbucks and Amazon workers — something clicked. She felt this was the best reason to talk to a journalist. And a partnership began.

Kantor and Twohey would later break the Weinstein story in 2017, which helped ignite the #MeToo movement. For their work, they won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service along with a team of colleagues who exposed harassment across industries. They also wrote “She Said” (soon to be a major motion picture) and, most recently, “Chasing the Truth,” a companion book adapted by author Ruby Shamir that serves as a young journalist’s guide to investigative reporting.

Twohey and Kantor on Friday lifted a veil into their experiences as investigative journalists as the keynote speakers for the 12th annual Teachapalooza, a three-day event for college journalism educators to navigate challenges and power up their teaching. In a discussion led by Nataly Joseph, a journalism major at USC Annenberg School for Communication and executive editor for USC Annenberg Media, the journalist duo offered an engrossing look into their exhaustive investigation.

“There’s no question that, as an investigative journalist, when you’re starting out, you’re not just looking for what’s going to be an interesting story. You’re looking for a story that’s going to make a difference and have an impact,” Twohey said. “And so while that has become a bit more confusing, I’d say, over the last five, 10 years in this really polarized country, I think that one of the reasons we also wrote this book is that we wanted to highlight an investigation where there actually was consensus among leaders from all different backgrounds in parts of the country and political affiliations. How was it that we were able to produce something that generated where nobody was debating what had happened? The response was, ‘What are we going to do about this problem?’”

They also shared advice for students who aspire to be investigative journalists. Here are some takeaways:

What advice can you give students when they’re first reaching out to sources, either by phone, text or email — just not necessarily in person yet?

Kantor encouraged students to get comfortable with the right to ask questions. She said they should practice owning their voice, by rehearsing: “Hi, I’m so-and-so. I’m calling from so-and-so …”

She remembered feeling more self-conscious as a young journalist about contacting people than she does now. “Twenty years of journalism has a way of stripping any shyness from you, and one of the things I enjoy most about being a journalist now is the kind of implicit right to ask anybody anything,” she said.

Twohey said there are no shortcuts to the initial outreach to people and stressed that aspiring journalists need to force themselves into the rhythm of that language, build up the courage, get out of the car, and knock on that door.

What advice can you give to students to get more comfortable with approaching someone in person? 

Kantor said students need to make a mental transition from feeling like they’re doing something wrong by asking questions to understanding that they’re doing something right. She said that’s harder for a student journalist to do. “I think human nature is that, when somebody asks a really good question, it’s almost impossible to resist answering,” she said, adding that she applied this with Amazon, which ended up engaging with her.

Twohey reminded the audience that there’s an “important cap” journalists put on. “You’re asking these questions for a reason, and there’s true integrity in what you’re doing,” she said. “When it comes to approaching private citizens, especially people that you suspect have been victims of abuse or any wrongdoing, I think that you have to acknowledge that that’s sensitive and that you have to be gentle in your approach.”

But when you’re taking questions to a powerful company, individuals, schools or institutions — especially if the public is paying their salaries — Twohey said it’s important to remember that they signed up for public scrutiny.

How can students keep track of all the information they report out to have everything organized and laid out for the first draft?

Kantor said that part of the reason why she and Twohey wrote “Chasing the Truth” and want to help students is that student journalists take on really complicated topics. She thinks there’s an outdated image of student journalism that she considers wrong.

“When we look at student papers today, we see that students are grappling with the hardest stuff on earth. They’re grappling with mental health issues, and COVID fallout, and gun violence in schools,” Kantor said. “Some of them are trying to do investigative work that’s really tough, too. We know a lot of student journalists who have done #MeToo stories, and that’s really hard to do this kind of work without training, without a salary, and often in an environment in which you have no distance and the people you’re confronting are members of your own community. They may be in charge of your grades, in charge of whether you get an award at graduation, in charge of a recommendation letter for after high school or college.”

When organizing information, Kantor said “the chronology is always king.” “You may not want to tell your story in a chronological way in the paper, but you want to understand events in a chronological way because, when you do, you can actually learn certain secrets and certain insights just from seeing how things unfolded in real life,” she said.

How can students decide how much time to give a source to respond to their reporting? 

There is no single answer, Twohey said. “You have to acknowledge that that’s a decision that you want to be making with your editor,” she said, adding that student journalists must be mindful of the time it took to report out the story.

In the case of Weinstein, Twohey said they presented years of allegations, a long trail of secret settlements, and women who were going on the record for the first time with their allegations against him.

“We always emphasize this. This is just a huge part of the due diligence of doing this work, is giving the person adequate time to respond,” she said. “And you’re doing that to be fair, and you’re also doing it to be accurate. Because for all the reporting and due diligence that you’ve done up until that point, this is a really critical moment in which the person that you’re writing about — or the institution that you’re writing about — could come back with information that sort of changes something, the way that you looked at something or understood something.”

Twohey said you never want to skip this part of the process, even when it’s difficult — as it was for her and Kantor in reporting on the allegations against Weinstein.

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
Amaris Castillo

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