The Necessity of Background Research in Reporting
Many a reporter has fallen into the trap of running before they walk. They may have a tip or a hunch and head off for the races without doing the most basic and fundamental step required in reporting: mastering the subject they’re investigating.
Get up to speed on your subject before running down leads, or your story could fall flat.
That’s the advice from accomplished journalists, who stress the importance of immersing yourself in research prior to pulling out your notebook or calling any sources.
They warn that doing interviews without being fully informed can lead to problems.
You could miss obvious questions. Sources might not feel comfortable with you. And information you do collect could end up being muddled in your copy, leading to a narrative that’s weak or confusing to the reader.
Conducting deep background research at the outset is like a mantra among award-winning reporters, a tenet they follow on every assignment.
“In my experience, there's nothing that turns a reluctant source off faster than an ignorant interviewer, where you don't know the lingo, you don't know the terms of art, you don't know the protocols,” said Diana B. Henriques, an award-winning business reporter and author of The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust. “If you don't know their world, they're just not going to trust you.”
Henriques said she’s seen journalists unfamiliar with business culture “forge into it without having done the necessary homework, and that makes them a less trustworthy investigator. And it raises the bar for people to trust them and cooperate with them and share confidential information.”
So what’s her tip?
“Try to observe. How do the folks in this world prefer to be addressed? How do they deal with one another? How do they express themselves? And how can I make them comfortable with me so that they'll feel that I understand their world?” she said.
“It doesn't matter whether you're talking to a CPA or a lance corporal in the marines. It's the same thing.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hamby stressed the value of his having done background when he probed the resurgence of black lung disease among coal miners in Appalachia.
“To get the history, there were some really good books that sources had recommended I read,” said Hamby, who spent a year documenting how difficult it was for stricken miners to claim benefits. His multi-part series, “Breathless and Burdened,” for The Center for Public Integrity, won the 2014 Pulitzer for investigative reporting.
“One that was really helpful to me was Penn State professor of labor history Alan Derickson’s book called Black Lung: Anatomy of a Public Health Disaster,” he recalled.
“That really details the shameful history of the industry and the medical professionals denying the existence of black lung in this country. So just a lot of reading, and a lot of talking to key people.”
Before launching into her acclaimed series “Insane. Invisible. In Danger.”, which revealed escalating violence and neglect in Florida mental hospitals, Tampa Bay Times reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton and her team spent weeks learning the ins and outs of the state’s mental health system.
“We learned about the whole mental health system because it’s so complex and you can’t just go diving in not understanding it,” said Anton, whose series won the 2016 Pulitzer for investigative reporting.
“So we started out doing whitepapers. We researched really basic things, like how it’s divided between criminal and civil, how much it costs, who’s in these mental hospitals,” she said.
“Each of us spent a lot of time nailing down what we needed to know and then writing it in the whitepapers for everybody else. I thought that was really crucial. And it’s common, I guess, in the investigative world. You just pick a topic and everybody needs to learn about it.”