The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook: Stories and Sources

By Carolyn VanBrocklin

In the Investigative Reporter’s handbook by Brant Houston and Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc., the first three chapters contain information on the investigative process, focusing closely on primary and secondary sources.

Starting the Process

The beginning of the investigative process is deciding what to write about. Inspiration for investigative reporting often comes from things that the journalist is already familiar with, such as follow-ups to previous stories, or a series of hints that have come to his or her attention. Working in a document state of mind is important when journalists are beginning to look for information about their topic. This means that journalists need to look for documents, rather than just looking at people, and assume that somewhere documents exist that relate to their topic. They need to find paper trails or electronic resources that lead them to interesting and insightful information. Although it is important to look for documents, it is also important to look for people with connections. However, reporters must be certain to look for former involved parties, in addition than those that are currently involved.Top 10 Tips of the Week

One particular method of investigative reporting that is highlighted in the book is “The Paul Williams Way.” This is the method of a journalist who came up with a formula for investigative reporting. The Paul Williams Way outlines eleven steps that begin at coming up with a story and making sure it is feasible to planning and building the story and conducting research, to filling in gaps and evaluating the story all the way to the final draft. This method cannot always be perfectly followed, but it provides a solid blueprint for journalists working on investigative stories.

The Importance of Sources

Secondary sources are important as a starting point to collect background information. Secondary sources include obvious ones such as older newspapers, broadcast and cable sources, magazines and books. However, some of the less common sources include using the “Invisible Web,” information below the search engines. The information on the invisible web can be found in databases and other scholarly resources. It is important for journalists to be aware of this source, because there is the potential for finding information that may have been overlooked in conventional means of search engines.

Primary sources can help a reporter reveal what secondary sources cannot. According to the book, “the best investigative reporting relies almost always relies on the collection of primary documents…” (34). These documents are original records that reporters will make use of to get facts for the story. Primary documents can sometimes be written by a person the reporter is investigating. Surprisingly, social security numbers are commonly used primary sources. These numbers are not as private as they should be, and reporters can use them to figure out where a person was born, which is usually where someone got their security number. Reporters can also make use of public records and vital records, such as birth and death certificates and voter’s registration documents. There are also monetary transaction documents that can be used as primary sources called Uniform Commercial Codes. These codes track purchases and can be helpful with reports about money laundering.

Featured Article

This feature article about the Guantanamo Bay quandary makes good use of primary and secondary sources. The reporter used transcripts from court hearings and military documents to solidify his story. In addition, the reporter spoke to current and former officials to get both past and present perspectives on Guantanamo Bay proceedings.


One Response

  1. You have some good content from the assigned readings here. When you cite an exemplary story each week you should give the reporter’s name – give credit for the work!

    When you mention a book title, the AP Style is to enclose it in double quotation marks.

    Since you will be doing this assignment every week, you should come up with a more attractive info box design. There are many better choices. As I always recommend in this class, you should find people to offer suggestions to you – use collective intelligence to learn. Both Sarah and Shea, your classmates, have excellent top-ten graphics you could learn about from them.

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