Investigative reporters are getting creative with how they show the paper trail

One of the fundamentals of journalism is to "find the records" that prove the story to be true. On TV, in print and online, journalists are finding ways to creatively show the documents and allow readers to interact with the parts of the document that interest them the most.   

What’s a great investigative story without paper – audits, inspections, citations, warrants, expense reports, court rulings, depositions, police reports, autopsies and tax filings.

When I was a young reporter at WSMV in Nashville, my mentor, Steve Eckert, used to tell me “follow the paper trail.” He told me that if I could find government documents to prove claims, it showed the government knew something was true but did nothing about it and it shielded the station from defamation and libel claims.

But there is just so much you can do to turn paper into interesting TV.

Some people in our craft, however, are experts in making paperwork interesting. In fact, they make it into something of an art form.

These days, Eckert is part of Minneapolis' award-winning KARE investigative team and is still giving me advice on how to make documents dance.

“We’ve been paying more attention to the backgrounds we use to present the graphics," he said. "For example, when we wanted to show the medical records of a young boy involved in a child protection case, Gary Knox built a background that included an image of the boy’s face.”
 

From KARE11
Image via KARE

“When shooting documents, lighting is critical," he said. "We prefer oblique lighting. It reveals the grain of the paper and can be used to highlight keywords or phrases. We often introduce subtle color to add interest.” 

This graphic shows a hint of red on the lower left and upper right.

From KARE11
Image via KARE

KARE still shoots close-ups of individual words or short phrases. But, Eckert says, “editing systems now make it so easy to manipulate documents we’re doing more digital highlighting now. Simple cut-outs of key phrases are the norm. But, when possible, I especially like moving from one key phrase to another in the same document.“

Roberta Baskin, a longtime IRE legend and investigative reporter for CBS, ABC and stations from Miami, Chicago and D.C., was a pioneer in turning documents into compelling TV. 

“When I was chief investigative correspondent at ‘48 Hours', I was forbidden from showing documents," Baskin said. "I snuck them in by holding them in my hand and reading directly from them. I admit to being overly enamored of the difficulty of getting the documents and wanting to share them with viewers. I doubt the viewers were as excited about them. Documents can build trust. But they can also be overused for dramatic effect.”

Brendan Keefe, who works alone as a multimedia investigative journalist at Atlanta's WXIA, gave me 10 ways to make documents interesting. Here's what he said:

1. Lighting is key. "Oblique lighting, parallel to the page, brings out the texture of the paper. I use a small flashlight, which I have with me in my backpack at all times. I also use a Sony Handycam with a built-in, stabilized, macro lens. I often shoot original documents in the clerk’s office, in the binder. If you put enough light on the document (a bright flashlight, for example), the ambient light of the newsroom or the clerk’s office becomes irrelevant. I usually employ a slow zoom into the keyword or words in the document, until they fill the frame."

From WXIA
From WXIA

2. Moving a light can also be effective. "Locking exposure for the fully-lit stack of documents, you can ‘paint with light’ by moving a handheld LED back and forth over a stack of documents – they appear from darkness, and the shadows get longer as you move the light away."

3. Try to roll over the page. "Another method is to use a small 'roller skate dolly' to move around the documents. You can roll it over the page with a wide-angle lens to reveal a section or roll in a circle to give the documents some movement."

4. Try the copy machine. "I have also used the method of either putting the documents in a copy machine or printing them to a laser printer in order to shoot the documents spitting out of the machine – all with natural sound!"

5. Lay it out. "Laying a large number of documents out on a floor can be effective."

From WXIA
From WXIA

6. Animation. "Animating documents on screen is getting tired, though sometimes it can be helpful to do a pullout from the official record."

7. Focus. "A magnifying glass draws focus and adds motion. A highlighter does the same."

From WXIA
From WCPO
From WXIA
From WXIA

8. Think about the whole frame. "Shoot documents with 'negative space' to add text."

From WXIA
From WXIA

9. Erase and add. "I have also experimented with 'erasing' the key line in Photoshop, then animating it back onto the page, or over a blurred page."
 

From WXIA
Screenshot

10. Share. "Documents online are helpful for the reader to go deeper into the source material. Posting the entire PDF supports your story, and makes the story 'sticky' with longer engagement times."

Paper Peeves

I do have some techniques I especially dislike.

The slamming document technique: 2018 IRE Medal winner Nancy Amons tells me to “get over” my distaste for the way some reporters indigently slam documents on the table like a prosecutor feigning rage in front of a jury. To me, the viewer should be the one enraged by the story, not the reporter. I also wonder how a journalist would explain the slamming documents to a jury while maintaining that the story was fair and objective. 

No more slapping and shaking, please: The only thing more annoying than the slamming documents is the reporter who shakes or smacks the documents in front of the TV lens while telling me he/she found “these documents that prove” whatever.

The hard-working reporter sorting through a mountain of paper: My friend Baskin joined me on this one saying, “I don’t like super-moody lighting on the reporter ferreting through docs with scary music underneath.” I truly do not care that it took you a week to read the documents. Just tell me what you found.

See it-say it: Eckert and I agree that one of the keys to using documents well in stories is to be sure that the reporter read the words on the screen. “As a viewer, I can’t read one thing while listening to another," Eckert said. "The more the mismatch, the less I understand. I won’t demand that we read each and every word, but what we say needs to closely track what we see.”

Share the documents with the public

This week, Poynter showed you how The Lens proved that a public relations firm hired actors to demonstrate in favor of a proposed power plant in New Orleans. The Lens posted social media posts on DocumentCloud to show how openly the hire-a-crowd business operates online. The Lens often posts documents online for the public to examine.

Among the 2017 IRE award winners, many used original documents in their online reporting. The Lens’ investigation "Fake Subpoenas" included the falsified subpoenas that prosecutors used to coerce reluctant crime victims. The Asbury Park Press included inspection records in the IRE awards finalist “Renter Hell” investigation. Keefe posted key documents online that were cornerstones to his IRE award-winning investigation “The Drug Whisperer.” WTHR investigated thousands of Indiana drug houses that have not been quarantined or cleaned as required by state law. The story included the documents that proved the toxic materials that inspectors said were in the homes. In all of these cases, the documentation leaves no doubt that the journalists had the goods.

Keefe said posting documents and showing them on the air might be a key to regaining the public’s trust in journalism.

“Sometimes we need to see the documents to show ‘proof’ especially in these days of dwindling trust in the media," he said.

It may not be enough to tell the public what you know, but also, to prove how you know it.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.

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