IRE14: Bulletproofing your stories

This is part of a series of posts from the Investigative Reporters and Editors 2014 conference. Follow along with the conference on Twitter with #IRE2014. Here’s the full schedule and a list of all conference tipsheets.

Managers track: Bulletproofing stories, anticipating missteps and managing blowback

Speakers: Mark Schoofs, Blake Morrison, Patricia DiCario, Maud Beelman

Mark Schoofs, BuzzFeed

Choosing your staff: Hiring from the outside

  • Look for a history of landing big projects
  • Capable of thinking big and small: Can they make their nut graph big and sweeping AND can they be OCD
  • Can they write. Are they able to tell a compelling story? With so many distractions for readers, big investigative stories must be brilliantly written
  • Hire nice, trustworthy folks. There’s no time for egos and jerks. It’s important to think: Would I trust that person with my life? Because in investigative reporting, that’s what editors are doing.

Choosing your staff: Hiring internally

  • Do they have a history of exclusives and getting documents?
  • Did they have facts that no other reporter got?
  • Did they get documents and interviews?
  • Do they persevere? Reporting begins when someone says no?
  • Do they have a desire to learn and get better

Practice no surprises journalism

  • No one in the story should be surprised by what’s in the story
  • This does NOT mean that you cede control of the piece to subjects
  • To do it, make a check list of facts to check with the primary and secondary sources. Do it by the phone if you can. If you can’t send a letter to the source and send it in 5 different ways (email, US mail, slip it under the door). The letter should be edited and reviewed by a lawyer. You can libel someone in a letter. Most important, sending letters helps get people to talk. So many times, people refuse to talk until you write them this letter.
  • Why do it? It serves a It helps you make sure that you’re thorough and complete. It’s ethically and intellectually honest. Every story has the potential to go viral. So you should feel comfortable sharing what you’re about to report before hand.

Other stuff

  • People don’t read what we consider what we consider great investigative reporting. We need to think of new ways to tell important and serious investigative stories. BuzzFeed has had some success using photo scrolls to tell important stories. Some stories have findings that are so shocking people will read it. But for most stories, we have to explain to the reader why they should care. Here’s a Slate piece on the top: You won’t finish this article.

Blake Morrison, Reuters

Anticipatory editing

  • The editors job is to help the reporters smooth out the good days and bad days
  • Be vigilant a critic while being a friend. Ask: How else can your findings be interpreted? Ask: We started with a hypothesis. Is there another way to look at this?
  • Identify, verify ALL findings, conclusions, assumptions. Example: It is a “contract” or an “agreement.”
  • Be transparent, embrace the gray areas. Acknowledge them.
  • Tree/forest editing: Take apart the story and put it back together in different boxes. Regroup the findings by character, agency, entity, issue, decision. That forces you to step back from editing wants in front of you and helps you look at things in a new light.

Watch for loaded language

  • Write with authority, not impunity. Precision is key. Avoid or consider such words as: Claims, denies, failed to, all superlatives, and “according to a five-month investigation” or the “first in a five-part series.”
  • Use the term “investigation” sparingly, with reverence


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