Goldsmith Honorees Offer Tips on Investigative Journalism

Top journalists detailed how they turned tips into groundbreaking series Wednesday at Harvard. During a panel discussion, finalists for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting and the winner stressed the need for long-term commitment to produce memorable stories that lead to change.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Raquel Rutledge, winner of the $25,000 prize, began her yearlong project exposing fraud and criminality in Wisconsin's child-care program with a tip from a concerned state worker, who told her about a boy left in a hot van to die.

Papers provided by the worker, who was risking her career, gave Rutledge a road map, which the investigation followed with stakeouts of no-show child-care workers. The first story in her "Cashing in On Kids" series ran four months after the initial tip; Rutledge's reporting led to investigations, indictments and new laws.

KHOU-TV Houston's "Under Fire" series on abuses of power and cover-ups in the Texas National Guard started with a call from a soldier's mother, who said her daughter had been sexually humiliated.

KHOU investigative reporter Mark Greenblatt first had to establish that this was not an isolated event. To break through what he called the "don't rat out a fellow soldier" military code, he and colleagues talked with the woman on background. They approached her not as intimidating investigative reporters but as people who wanted to help. This, he said, gained her trust and willingness to provide a "treasure trove" of other victims.

Greenblatt identified something "common to all of us" on the Goldsmith panel: "one story leading to the next. That's the key to substantial, memorable journalism that leads to action." The action in this case: criminal investigations and laws requiring better oversight of the Guard.

A friend's tip triggered the cooperative effort of ProPublica, The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune and PBS's "Frontline" reporters to expose a pattern of vigilante violence and police use of deadly force in "Law and Disorder."

"You often stumble into something," said ProPublica's A.C. Thompson. In this case, an author writing a book about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina told him she'd heard that white groups had fired at blacks seeking safety during the 2005 disaster.

Skeptical at first, Thompson was convinced by home videos showing people bragging openly about shooting blacks. With his efforts underwritten by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, Thompson sued the New Orleans coroner's office for autopsy reports and obtained hospital records to verify victims' claims.

Brendan McCarthy was one of the three Times-Picayune reporters who shared information with Thompson. They found that it sometimes helped to be "the local guy" with sources instead of an unknown out-of-towner.

McCarthy said the investigation is still "a work in progress" and that "we're still plugging along on the tip of the iceberg." Already, he said the series has triggered an FBI investigation and several indictments, and McCarthy predicts more will come because the stories have "a snowball effect."

To penetrate the maze of favoritism between a former governor and his cronies, The (Raleigh) News & Observer's J. Andrew Curliss depended on memos written by low-level state employees to "cover themselves."

With the state delaying record requests, Curliss obtained a private memo in which a developer bragged about how fast he could get building permits. That, plus stakeouts and a three-hour confrontation with a participant in the schemes, were key parts of a yearlong investigation. The series, "The Perks of Power," resulted in criminal investigations, firings and government reforms.

Steve Riley, the paper's senior editor for investigations, said the paper's investigative team fields a lot of tips but that the system needs improvement. "I want to get a more systematic approach to making sure of follow-up, but there's no replacing a reporter who will take [an idea] and run with it."

One suggestion advanced during the discussion: comb through "news tip" lines for comments about alleged misdeeds. It's a challenge to glean these out but they can provide ideas for investigations into, for example, real estate fraud.

For "Death on the Rails," Washington Post investigative reporter Joe Stephens and transportation reporter Lena H. Sun "started with stark disbelief" that the District's supposedly fail-safe Metro system didn't prevent a two-train crash that killed nine and injured 80.

Four months of FOIA requests to D.C officials produced nothing, but meanwhile the Post contacted other cities with which the Washington transit officials might have been in contact. They finally hit pay dirt with records from Virginia. "It was a long, convoluted process to get documents," said Stevens, but it uncovered "an accident waiting to happen": repeated safety and oversight lapses. After the series ran, the federal government moved to take over subway and light rail systems around the country.

Boston Globe reporter Sean P. Murphy finds adding his e-mail address to stories and being "proactive" pays off. Stalled on his probe ("Gaming the System") of how state officials used loopholes to enhance their retirement benefits, he started cold calling boards across the state. Told that there was a case "north of Boston," he eventually tracked down a retired state senator who had used his volunteer job as a library trustee to double his pension.

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Murphy and other speakers stressed the value of just showing up to get a comment from a reluctant source. "When they're ducking you, go to their office to flush them out." For his series, which has led to new pension laws, he once waited three hours to see a suddenly wealthy retiree.

  • Bill Kirtz

    write on media topics for trade and general circulation magazines; teach varity of print journalism courses.


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