The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook: Investigations and Writing

By Carolyn VanBrocklin

When following an investigative story, the most important thing is that it must be compelling. No one is going to be very interested in a story that just goes on and on without telling readers why they should be concerned and gives it a face. Journalists must work to be both good reporters and writers. They must pay keen attention to details that help tell the story, and must do thorough reporting to have a good story with all the meaning in it.Top Ten Tips of the Week

When writing a story that has outrage in it, make sure you pay attention to who is doing what, not just what is happening. Giving stories a name and a face make them more compelling. People are more likely to pay attention because they want to see how it affects real people. They might also want to know what they can do to help. Make sure you don’t just talk about what is happening, but why it is such an outrage. How it is affecting people and places.

Besides simply writing to answer the typical questions, who, what, where, when and why of a story, reporters must also answer the question “so what?” Readers are interested in the implications of this story. The question of “so what” is answered in the details of the investigative piece. It is important to find out as many details as possible, and to ask whatever questions come to mind.

Today’s stories all are starting to include several different multimedia options, but the stories must still have good fundamental writing. It is also important to let graphics carry some of the load. With the majority of print news appearing on the internet, graphics are a welcome break from lines of text. They can help condense information for readers, and also supplement it.

When starting to write a story, it is important to have a focus. Where do you want to take the story and how is it going to get there? It is also important to keep a resolution for the story in mind. Jon Franklin, two-time Pulitzer-prize winner, has suggested writing the ending sentence first; that way the writer knows where the story is going and has an ending to work up to. This can also help keep your focus throughout the story so you don’t get off track.

Depending on the story type, different leads can be used. Sometimes a straightforward lead is necessary, but other times it may be impractical. Then the writer can use a descriptive lead, which paints a picture of what is happening; a narrative lead, which recounts the action of a particular person or event and uses it to launch into the story or an anecdotal lead, which tells a short introductory story.

Franklin has said that stories without attention to the middle consist of a beginning, “muddle,” and an ending. This is because oftentimes there is such a focus on crafting the beginning and end of an article that the middle gets forgotten. However, that’s a pretty important part because it tells the story and gives the reader all the important, necessary information. A good lead can draw people in, but good middles keep them reading, wanting to know what is going to happen next. The middle of the story must have flow and momentum.

It is also important to have good transitions in the story, otherwise it feels clunky. The ending should be deep and thoughtful without editorializing. It should also provoke emotion. You don’t have to reach out to find a witty ending. Something simple can do. You can make tie backs to the lead but they must be natural.

In this Pulitzer-prize winning investigative story by The Chicago Tribune about the hazards of some children’s toys, reporters follow all of the advice written above. It starts with an anecdotal lead that draws the reader in. When the reporter mentions that dangerous children’s toys injured young children, the reader automatically has an emotional reaction and wants to know what happened. The story shows why the readers should care by making it a real event that affects real people.


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