Tips from an AP reporter for quick investigations

by Margaret Looney
Oct 30, 2018 in Investigative Journalism

Business investigations can seem daunting, lengthy and sometimes dangerous, but many fact-finding missions can be turned around in a snap.

Associated Press investigative reporter Matt Apuzzo gave his speedy tips for pulling off investigations fit for side projects or stories with a tight deadline during a Reynolds Center webinar titled "Quick-Hit Business Investigations: From Concept to Execution."

Apuzzo offers his tips along with a mantra for investigative journalists - "not to be covering things, but to be uncovering things."

Here are IJNet's takeaways:

Frame investigations around a specific question. Starting to poke around on a hunch that something is fishy won't get you far. Begin with a critically thought-out question and have your investigation be the answer. "Leave the 'target' lingo to the feds," Apuzzo said. "We're in the answering questions business." Bethany McLean of Fortune magazine asked "How does Enron make money?" and cracked open the story in just a few weeks with "Is Enron Overpriced?."

Know the machinery of your beat. Learn the internal and external cogs in the machine - the big players and the dead-weights. Create a mental Rolodex of anyone who could answer your investigation's key question. Some overlooked sources include whistle blowers, competitors, suppliers, major customers, retired executives and analysts. When dealing with analysts, ask them how they know what they know, rather than what they know.

Be wary of flacks. Public relations professionals and communication directors are highly knowledgeable about their companies, but they're paid to protect them at all costs. Forming a good relationship with them will make your job easier, but you can't rely on them as a plausible source. Apuzzo cites book "Stop the Presses" that teaches flacks to use "strategic emotion" in interviews to spin a story in their favor. They're good at what they do, but "don't count on them for the truth," Apuzzo said.

Keep conversations casual. No matter how important your source is, try to have candid conversations outside of the workplace. Make the effort to meet in person, in coffee shops, restaurants or even at a residence. Employees don't complain about their bosses or their company at the office. They vent at bars over drinks. The conversation should be casual. Find out what their typical day is like or who was in their morning meeting. You're not asking them for top-secret information, but just trying to get familiar with the system.

Don't underestimate the wealth of documents. Almost all information that flows through a company is written down somewhere. Knowing who has the documents you need will make filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests easier. Even if you're not looking for anything in particular, documents can shine light on telling information with basic facts. A few must-see documents include appointment calendars, lobbying records, lawsuits, government contracts and FOIA request logs. Seeing who requested which documents can show you where competing news organizations are focusing their attention.