Susan White’s Brief Guide to Investigations

Susan White John Nelson

Great investigative projects usually begin with journalists brave enough to be guided by their own curiosity even if their sources—or their colleagues—think they’re a bit daft. Such journalists allow themselves to articulate the embarrassingly obvious, big-picture questions that linger at the edges of the stories that cross every reporter’s desk: This doesn’t make sense to me. Something seems wrong here. How could this have happened?

Too many of us subconsciously train ourselves to ignore these gut instincts in order to keep up production, to survive the daily grind. The best investigative reporters, however, pay attention to these inconvenient thoughts. They let their natural curiosity guide them to their best work.

Copley News Service reporter Marcus Stern’s instincts kicked in when he wondered why former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham made two privately funded trips to Saudi Arabia. Marc never answered that question. But he did discover that the San Diego congressman had given defense contractors $100 million in military-intelligence earmarks in exchange for real estate, boats, antiques, carpets, private jet travel, a Rolls Royce, and hot tub parties with prostitutes. Cunningham went to prison. Marc and the team of reporters he led won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting.

Good instincts don’t automatically lead to Pulitzers, of course. They may not even lead to a project. But prizes and projects aren’t the point. Even a routine daily story becomes an “investigation” when the right questions are asked and answered. Following our instincts helps us give our work the context people need to understand their communities and the broader world around them. We become better journalists. And we train ourselves to spot the “big one,” the story that deserves a deeper investigation, when it finally does come along.

The most obvious way to identify the “big one” is when you spot wrongdoing by individuals, businesses, or government institutions. The wrongdoing should affect a substantial number of people. Ideally its revelation will create a tide of outrage that sends people to jail, triggers local or national discussions, or inspires legislation.

The most powerful projects also achieve something less tangible: They leave readers with ideas and impressions that linger long after details of the projects are forgotten. Anyone who read Sheri Fink’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize–winning article about what happened when doctors were trapped in a hospital for days with critically ill patients during Hurricane Katrina will forever view medical ethics through that prism.

Whether a project reaches these heights depends on the subject, of course. But it also depends on the reporter’s creativity. Again, those pesky instincts are often your best guide. Should the story be told in traditional news style, with a hard lead and some compelling anecdotes, followed by supporting data and quotes? Or should you try some other, more innovative approach—something that might lure readers who don’t have the patience for, or interest in, traditional long-form journalism?

Last year, InsideClimate News reporter Sabrina Shankman dared to tell the story of climate change through the life-or-death drama of a polar bear attack on a group of Sierra Club hikers in the Canadian Arctic. Shankman’s research was impeccable. She interviewed close to 20 of the world’s leading climate change, polar bear, and sea ice experts. But to grab the largest possible audience, she built her story not on the science, but on the horrifying attack and its effect on the hikers. All the science was there. But she folded it into the narrative so seamlessly that most readers probably didn’t realize they were getting a science lesson along with the drama.

Doing this type of work is immensely difficult. Assembling the facts. Finding and interviewing the right people. Assessing and reassessing your findings to make sure there are no flaws in your data or your thinking. Making sure any “bad guys” get their say. And then writing and rewriting (dozens of times, if necessary) until the story is clean, clear, and compelling.

The investigative reporters I’ve worked with all have a core strength that carries them through this painstaking process and pushes them past the obstacles that inevitably crop up, including unsupportive bosses, illnesses, family crises, time constraints, and the unpredictable twists and turns every project takes at some point. Like actors taking on major roles, or athletes preparing for competition, they manage not only to persevere but also to relish this important work.

I remember the day I found Jerry Kammer, one of the reporters who joined Marc Stern on the Cunningham project, lying on the floor in the little office where he was trying to meet deadline on a pivotal story in the project. Jerry’s face was as white as his hair—it turned out he was suffering from a severe case of food poisoning—but he managed to raise his head and smile.

“I’m okay,” he said. “I can make it.”


In her newspaper career at the Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader and The San Diego Union-Tribune, Susan White was a television critic, education reporter, writing coach, U.S.-Mexico border editor, and enterprise editor. In 2008 she was the first assigning editor hired by the nonprofit investigative newsroom ProPublica, and in 2011 she became executive editor of InsideClimate News. She has edited or co-edited three Pulitzer Prize–winning projects: at the Union-Tribune (2006), ProPublica (2010), and InsideClimate News (2013). She is executive editor of the nonprofit investigative-journalism startup Hashtag30.

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