So David Barstow suggests that standard investigative journalism — which tends to include the “a (fill in the blank) investigation shows … bullet, bullet, bullet” nutgraph and three parts: overview, blown-up anecdotes and solutions — tends to feel like homework.
You know you should read it, but you don’t really want to. Some display good journalism, but they often fail to connect with readers. When readers see the lede and open to the body, graphics and two sidebars, they think it’s time to eat broccoli.
Narratives are not just for trials and horrible illnesses, he said. Working narrative elements into investigative stories can make them fantastic stories. Check out this top on A Trench Caves In; A Young Worker Dies. Is It A Crime?:
As the autopsy confirmed, death did not come right away for Patrick M. Walters. On June 14, 2002, while working on a sewer pipe in a trench 10 feet deep, he was buried alive under a rush of collapsing muck and mud. A husky plumber’s apprentice, barely 22 years old, Mr. Walters clawed for the surface. Sludge filled his throat. Thousands of pounds of dirt pressed on his chest, squeezing and squeezing until he could not draw another breath.
His mother, Michelle Marts, was the first in his family to hear.
“You just stand there like you’re suspended in blank space,” she said of that moment. She remembers being enveloped by a paralyzing numbness. He was her only child. She could not hear or breathe or move. Was this, she found herself wondering, what Patrick felt?
She called Patrick’s father, her ex-husband, Jeff. “It literally knocked me off my feet,” he said. “I lay there, right there on the floor, screaming and crying.”
Mrs. Marts next called Patrick’s wife, Crystal. “I remember running upstairs and just hugging my kid and thinking, `How am I going to tell her,’ ” Ms. Walters said.
Soon after, an investigator from the coroner’s office called Mrs. Marts. He could not have been nicer. Such a tragedy, he said. But by then, the first insistent questions had begun to form. Her son had often spoken about his fear of being buried alive. He had described being sent into deep trenches without safety equipment, like the large metal boxes placed in excavations to create a sheltered workspace.
“Was there a trench box?” she asked the investigator. He paused, she recalled. “He says, `Ma’am, no safety procedures were followed. None.’
“He was just so disgusted.”
There are problems with marrying narrative and investigations, though, he said. First, most great narratives involve a willing subject, someone who opens their lives for the journalist to bear witness. This is seldom the case with investigations. Second, most major ivestigations these days have some sort of database involved. Databases and narratives are not friends.
To achieve the goal, he said, we should look to Lieutenant Colombo.
Here’s what he means.
Colombo approaches a case with a childlike curiosity. When he goes in, even if he’s investigating politicians or celebrities, he is comfortable in who he is, a frumpy detective in a trenchcoat. He is never seduced by proximity to power or importantce, which gives him a moral authority to investigate. It gives him the ability to be completely comfortable asking the questions. This allows him to sort of bobble around collecting complexity until he finds a string to follow in the investigations. One of the biggest traps for investigative reporters, Barstow said, is becoming wedded to your hypothesis. Some reporters tend to put blinders on and never allow gray into their stories. Colombo, from the beginning, is gathering gray.
What’s also great about Colombo, he said, and this is important, is that Colombo in the beginning is underestimated. He plays the bumbling idiot and no one thinks he has the gumption to put the pieces together. But by the end of the show, Colombo is overestimated. People think he knows more than he knows. He’s constantly bluffing to get information.
It is for that reason that Barstow recommends talking to subjects early in the investigation. A lot of reporters start investigations by spending tons of time collecting information and documents, then, at the end, they approach the subjects. Barstow says he tries to go to subjects early to tell them up front what he is working on, who he plans on talking to, what types of questions he’s wrestling with. It provides a moral high ground that he doesn’t want to sacrifice. If we’re sneaking around in our reporting, it just doesn’t feel right, even if it’s ethically defendable.
Engaging early has a cost, obviously. The walls go up. They send letters from their lawyers. Everybody in the company is notified and told to direct your questions to the PR department. But this method has benefits. It alerts all the employees that you’re working on the story, so it can generate tips for you from those who wish to speak. It also establishes an early dialogue with the bosses, or their lawyers. Their defense could prove useful down the road as you learn more.
When Barstow was reporting on OSHA, he found all the agency email addresses and sent a mass email noting who he was, what he was working on, and the questions he wanted to ask. Next day, OSHA goes crazy and orders its employees not to talk, which prompts a small cadre to do just that.
The method shifts the rules of engagement, and you’re sending a message: Resistance is futile. “I’m trying to get to a point in my investigative reporting where they believe that,” he said. I want information, he said, but I also want to send a message to the company: you’re not in control anymore.
And the reporter, like Colombo, moves from underestimated to overestimated. The company or agency begins to think you know more than you really may know.
To make up for the lack of access, one must make the most of interview opportunities. When it’s time to leave, don’t. Think about the scene in All The President’s Men when Bernstein won’t leave that woman’s house. Drag out interviews as long as possible. Like Colombo, always look for the half-smoked cigarette.
Avoid anecdotal leads that only work because they have been trimmed so much. “What I’m trying for is an anecdote on steroids,” he said. In order to get that, though, you have to earn it. Narrative writing takes narrative reporting.
In the end, “it allows you, hopefully, if you do it right, to connect with readers in the heart and head and gut so you can carry them through to the end.”