November 18, 2020

By Jordan Wolman, Lehigh University (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania)

At The Brown and White, Lehigh University’s student newspaper, we noticed we were caught in the trap of turning around one-off, 500-word rundowns, week after week, on the latest sports game, event or university announcement. Sadly, it took the college news equivalent of a bomb going off to make us realize this.

One day in fall 2018, with no warning, Lehigh announced — right in the middle of the housing lottery process — that juniors and seniors would no longer be guaranteed on-campus housing, as had previously been the case. In the aftermath of the mad scramble to get answers and as upperclassmen rushed to sign leases off campus, the university reversed course days later, claiming the email was sent out in error.

That’s when we knew we needed an investigative team.

I was named the lead editor of the team. My mission was to pick the very best reporters on our staff to form a small investigative team.

When I say the “best” reporters, I’m not necessarily talking about the prosiest writers. More than anything, the investigative reporters I wanted on my team were the ones who weren’t afraid, who didn’t apologize for standing up for the truth and who weren’t going to shy away from knocking on a source’s door. Writing, fact-checking, and even interviewing skills can be learned. What can’t be taught is the drive and eagerness to get at the truth.

We also knew the team would need the space, separation and independence to do its best work. Forming an investigative team was an investment in every sense of the word. We hoped the results would be evident for our readers and sources. The investigative team needed separation from the daily news churn without an editor asking for tight deadlines and relying on the team to fill the pages. That’s not to say the investigative team isn’t collaborative with the newsroom, but separation and independence were key.

One of the most exciting things about an investigative team is that you just never know which stories will come up, catch wind and end up as full-blown, months-long projects, gripping the waking moments of the reporters. You just know when you’ve found the story.

For us, it didn’t take long, once we got organized, to become fully immersed in two stories in particular — both of which have won or have been nominated for a number of awards. Both relate to allegations of sexual misconduct, and I have chosen to highlight those two stories here since it can be such a difficult topic to report out.

The first story our team delved into took five months to report before we published. It centered on allegations that Lehigh’s track and field head coach had engaged in repeated instances of misconduct that made female athletes — and assistant coaches and parents — feel uncomfortable.

The story started through a tip that one female athlete was considering quitting because of a negative experience on the team. Through her, we were able to get in touch with other athletes who had reservations about their experiences on the team. The athletes making allegations, as well as an assistant coach and a parent of a student-athlete on the team,  largely directed blame at the head coach and upper administration for not doing enough to address their concerns.

We obtained documents of complaints and confirmations of meetings between athletes and administrators in which the athletes repeatedly expressed discomfort with the dynamic between themselves and the coach. In taking this route, we were able to go above the coach: Administrators were aware of a history of issues on the track team, and yet the issues continued.

The second breakthrough story centered on a former professor at Lehigh who resigned in 2018 due to allegations of sexual assault. Here’s where another important part of an investigative team comes in handy: institutional knowledge. We knew from whispers among the faculty that the university did not disclose the full story of the professor’s misconduct, both in scope and in its timeline. It’s difficult to sift through myriad rumors and innuendo, but can be done with diligence and time. You owe your sources that much.

Through on- and off-the-record interviews, a secret court document, public records and emails shared with our team, our reporters were able to corroborate a timeline of events that did not match what the university shared publicly about the professor’s departure. We also verified that the professor was promoted while under investigation as well as more specific accounts of the misconduct the professor engaged in.

Here’s what we’ve learned from these stories and others about how an investigative team can make a real impact.

  1. Keep your eyes and ears open. Be in touch with your community. What are the issues on their minds? Never dismiss a rumor without looking into it.
  2. Understand the value of an off-the-record conversation. It might be frustrating at first if a source does not want to put their name to their information, but the insight and guidance from these conversations can be indispensable.
  3. Think big and think about the system. A coach or a professor abusing his or her power is bad, yes. But that person can be replaced. Stories that produce long-lasting change go after the system.
  4. Your sources are your lifeline. It’s critical that you are absolutely clear with your sources on expectations, especially in sensitive stories like the ones I highlighted. This comes up especially when discussing how that source is willing to be identified in your story. This is a truly sacred agreement.
  5. Don’t stop asking questions. If you’re stuck on how to push through that next barricade or don’t understand a court proceeding or jargon or a tax filing, turn to the experts. You can’t know everything about everything. But you need to know your full story better than anyone.

You’d be amazed at the impact the right people on your staff can have with just a little separation and breathing room. Make a difference and form an investigative team. Your community and your readers will be better served because of it.

Jordan Wolman is a senior journalism major at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Jordan serves as the editor-in-chief of The Brown and White, Lehigh’s student paper, and has experience covering the Pennsylvania Statehouse through outlets like Spotlight PA, The Morning Call and PennLive. He also will be covering the lack of internet access in parts of rural Pennsylvania through a Pulitzer Center local crisis reporting grant.

Programming note

The Lead is taking next week off for Thanksgiving. We’ll be back in your inbox on Wednesday, Dec. 2.

One tool we love

From The Lead’s archives: This week’s tool comes to you thanks to a first-world tech problem: When I started my job recently, I logged into my Google account on Chrome and wanted to bookmark a bunch of work-related sites. However, my Google account’s bookmarks were prepopulated with my personal bookmarks (aka, lots of things for this newsletter). How could I save both of those collections separately?

Enter: Toby. This Chrome extension takes a bit of getting used to if you’re used to traditional bookmarks, but it has all the same functions and is much more organized. Create collections of bookmarks (i.e. personal and work) and move open tabs into a collection if you want to save them for later. Every time you open a new tab, the Toby page of your saved collections comes up, making it easy to access any of your bookmarked pages.

What’s your favorite tool that other student journalists should know about? Email me and I might feature it in a future issue.


One story worth reading

Along with audio and Spanish versions, ProPublica translated a recent project in a way I’ve never seen before: The nonprofit news outlet wrote a plain language version to reach readers with intellectual disabilities. It appears to be the first time a mainstream news organization has created this type of translation, Sarah Scire writes for Nieman Lab. Professor of disability studies Becca Monteleone, who translated the article and editor’s note, told Scire that journalists have typically been “writing about rather than for or with” when they report on individuals with disabilities.

Opportunities and trainings

💌 Last week’s newsletter: How four student newspapers covered a rollercoaster election week

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Taylor Blatchford is a journalist at The Seattle Times who independently writes The Lead, a newsletter for student journalists. She can be reached at…
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