In the late 1990s, Martha Mendoza was a relatively new reporter at the Associated Press. She had just discovered what she hoped would be one of her first big scoops: She had documents proving that Bureau of Land Management field officers had been rounding up wild horses and burros on BLM land and sending them for slaughter, while recording them as adopted.
So, relishing the role of gumshoe reporter, Mendoza set out to do some hard-hitting journalism. She went to the source: She found the corral where the animals were kept. The officers weren’t there, so she went back to their headquarters. The front door was locked but the side door was open, so she let herself in. Inside, she found all the officials she had hoped to interview, looking surprised.
“I was like, ‘Hi, oh I’m so glad you’re all here together. I’ve been looking for you,’” Mendoza recalls. She dove right in, telling them about the documents she had and what they proved.
“They were like, ‘No, get the hell outta here. That didn’t happen, you’re a liar,’” Mendoza says, laughing. “It just kind of was a gotcha moment that didn’t really tease out very much.”
Twenty-one years later, Mendoza, who’s still an investigative reporter for the AP, has won two Pulitzer Prizes—one for her participation in investigations into a secret American massacre of civilians in the Korean War, and another for a story about slavery in the seafood trade. If she were to try that BLM interview again today, she says, there’s a lot she would do differently.
For starters, “I would have role played the whole thing,” acting out her questions and the various answers they might elicit. That’s something she and her team at the AP do now before difficult interviews. Also, she says, “I would have taken a long time letting them tell me about the program, asking lots of questions,” to get the officials comfortable and show that she’d done her research.
These are just two of the strategies Mendoza has developed over decades of investigative reporting and thousands of difficult interviews. But a typical science journalist doesn’t always get this kind of practice: When you’re reporting on science, interviews are often friendly—closer to collaborative than combative. Interviews that are more adversarial can be intimidating, and, in the worst case, they can be a deterrent to taking on investigative science stories. While the best way to get over this fear is probably to amass many years of practice like Mendoza has, science writers with less investigative experience can fast-track their progress by learning from the pros.
It’s OK to Be Nervous, but It’s Essential to Be Prepared
Every journalist I interviewed for this story, even the most seasoned investigative reporters, said they dislike confrontation and get nervous or uncomfortable before what’s likely to be an adversarial interview. To make sure nerves don’t interfere with your work, it’s essential to be prepared.
Stephanie Lee covers science for BuzzFeed News, and over the past few years she’s broken several stories that uncovered various kinds of malfeasance in science: sexual harassment, harmful drugs, and dubious research results. She is frequently on the phone with people trying to get them to talk to her about their worst misdeeds and mistakes. Last year, she wrote a story about a biotech start-up founder who had been representing himself as having a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, when in fact he didn’t.
One way that Lee combats the nerves that inevitably come upon her when she’s about to ask a hard question is by writing it out verbatim—so that when she asks, for example, “Do you in fact have a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania?” she just reads it from the screen in front of her.
“In the moment, it can feel very paralyzing to formulate and ask a very accusatory question,” she says.
Robert Cribb, an investigative reporter at the Toronto Star, uses a tactic similar to Mendoza’s interview role-play. Before sitting down with an important source, he’ll create a flowchart, starting with his first question and mapping out every possible answer, and his follow-up questions. Then he sits down with his editor and they’ll act out different routes through the chart.
Interviews with the main subject of an investigative story shouldn’t be about fact-finding.
It’s a lot of work, but Cribb says that after he’s done this, he’s supremely well prepared not just for the interview but also for writing the story.
Mendoza sometimes brings what she calls a “dossier” with her to an interview—a compilation of relevant documents and information that she’s gathered, which she gives to the interviewee at the beginning of the interview to help them process what’s happening, and to show that she’s done her homework. (This has the added benefit of buying a little more time with someone who might be trying to close the door on her if she’s showed up for an improptu interview—she gets at least a few more minutes with them as they review the dossier.)
Interviews with the main subject of an investigative story shouldn’t be about fact-finding, she says. Of course, you should keep an open mind to any new information that’s provided, but in general it’s essential to really know your stuff before you start. The purpose of the interview is to get the subject to respond to the facts that you’ve gathered, and to hear their perspective, the reasoning behind their actions, or perhaps their flat-out denial.
Staying rooted in your reporting can also help prevent a conversation from getting too heated.
“You have one thing as a journalist in these conversations—you have the truth of what you have gathered,” says Cribb.
Mendoza says that when things do get heated or sources start to shut down, she always tries to give them a chance to explain themselves. This strategy is also useful for dealing with sources who turn suspicious mid-interview, or get nervous, after the fact, about what they’ve said. In all of these cases, she says the best thing you can do is to ask interviewees to share their concerns by saying things like: “I sense that you’re uncomfortable talking about this topic. Would you be willing to share why you’re concerned?,” “Do you want to know what the story is going to be about?,” or “Let’s talk about what you’re worried about.”
Fight Hard to Get All Sides of a Story
Sometimes the most difficult part of interviewing the subject of an investigative story is just getting the interview at all. Cribb says he always starts with a friendly introductory email, and follows up with phone calls if he gets no response.
Every time he reaches out, he reminds the subject that it is in their interest to get their side on the record, and that he is doing his best to be fair and accurate. He says this works for him “about 47 percent of the time,” but he’s noticed it getting harder over the years. “There’s far more manufactured, manicured messaging in this day and age. The public relations industry is far bigger and more sophisticated than the journalism industry,” he says.
Everyone appreciates fair treatment, and being open, honest, kind, and fair can often help avoid animosity altogether.
But it’s important to keep trying. Lisa Song is a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative environmental reporter who recently joined ProPublica after several years at InsideClimate News. In 2014, when she was at InsideClimate, Song and a team of her colleagues were working on a story about a weakening of air-pollution guidelines in Texas that essentially gave oil refineries and other polluters license to emit more benzene. The team worked on it for over a year, periodically reaching out to environmental regulators requesting an interview. They consistently refused, and would only interact over email.
Finally, after a year of reporting, Song sent out a routine email asking again to speak with someone, not expecting much. But suddenly one of the toxicologists from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality agreed to meet with her in person. She rushed onto a plane to Austin* and was rewarded with a one-hour sit down with him and several of his colleagues.
“I [laid] out all of the concerns from other scientists I talked to, all of the data and exposure limits from other agencies in the country, all of the science, to say, ‘This is what everybody else says. This is what the current state of science is saying. What do you have to say?’” Song recalls. The official’s response was to simply state that he believed the limits in Texas were protective enough.
“It was a difficult conversation in the sense that he refused to recognize the facts,” Song says. But, she adds, “I think it showed the depth of his conviction.” He was an influential figure in the story, and by meeting him in person she was also able to add some details and nuance to the piece that wouldn’t have come through over the phone.
When you don’t have the luxury of waiting a year for a source to come around, your best persuasive efforts may not be enough to get the interview you want. Instead, subjects may only be willing to send a written statement in response to a list of your questions. Formulating these questions is just as important as preparing for an interview, so there are a few things to keep in mind. Cribb says to remember that just as their responses are on the record, so are your questions. So be mindful of how you phrase them, trying to stay as neutral as possible. Be as specific as possible, and make sure you haven’t put two questions in one question. “Don’t say, ‘Is this true? And if not, what about this?’,” Song says. “Break down your questions into simpler pieces so it’s harder for them to try and miss a question.”
Additionally, it’s a good idea to include a note with your questions, letting the source know that you’re disappointed they wouldn’t agree to an interview, and that this fact will be noted in the story.
Reaching out to the “other side” isn’t merely a formality. Getting everyone’s perspective is an essential part of the reporting.
Most importantly, remember that reaching out to the “other side” isn’t merely a formality. Getting everyone’s perspective is an essential part of the reporting. So whatever your sources say, keep an open mind.
Mendoza says talking to the subject of an investigation “always changes the story. Usually, I think I’ve got the story and then it’s like, oh, I’ve got to do some more,” Mendoza says. “It’s not ‘gotcha.’ Everything is nuance.”
Lee says that during the reporting process, even her most persistent emails and phone calls often get no response. But before publishing any investigation, BuzzFeed News always sends out a “no surprises” letter to the people and/or institutions in the story (see the example at right or click on this sample letter). This is a list of all the facts and new revelations uncovered in the story.
Song and Cribb have similar protocols. Cribb says that at the Toronto Star, they won’t include any allegations in the story unless they’ve run them by the subject of reporting. So if he realizes he has six points to make and he only asked the subject about five of them, he will either go back and talk to them again, or, if there’s no time, he won’t include that sixth point.
In addition to being a necessary courtesy to the people you’re reporting on, an added benefit of a “no surprises” letter or phone call is that it can sometimes lead to unexpected last-minute interviews. “I’ve found that by being upfront and giving these types of opportunities, that sometimes you can get way more conversation than you expected,” Song says.
Everyone appreciates fair treatment, and being open, honest, kind, and fair can often help avoid animosity altogether. Even if the subject of your investigation hates your story, you may find they respect you and your process. Cribb has even had previous subjects of hard-hitting investigations come to him years later with tips for new stories and offers to help.
Don’t Let Fear Keep You from Telling Important Stories
Lee says it’s taken her a long time to get used to investigative work. “These kinds of stories are not natural for me. It’s really taken a lot of practice,” she says.
She admits it can still be scary for her to take on investigative, potentially confrontational stories, but “I do them in the hopes that people will have a better understanding of what’s really happening,” she says, “and I try to hold companies or scientists accountable if they’re not telling the truth.”
Song agrees, and she hopes more science reporters will feel empowered to tackle awkward interviews and take on investigative work.
“Science journalism is a hard thing because there’s an extra layer of stuff to decode,” she says. “I think it’s totally ripe for investigations into abuse and twisting of truth, and facts, and how they influence policy. So the more [investigative] stories that are out there, the better.”
* Correction 12/11/18: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Lisa Song flew to Dallas while reporting one of her stories. She flew to Austin.
Mallory Pickett is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. She mostly covers science and technology, and she has written for The New York Times Magazine, Wired, FiveThirtyEight, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @MalloryLPickett.