Is College Investigative Reporting Realistic or Romantic?

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From The News Manual:

“Never interview the person at the centre of the investigation first. Always start at the edge and work your way towards the middle. You must not warn the person under investigation too soon. Also, you need to gather as many facts as possible before you put your questions to the person at the centre.”

This was probably the most useful quote that I read because it applies to all sorts of journalism.  If you start on the outside and work your way in, by the time you meet with the person who really knows their stuff, you can ask them educated and pointed questions.  You won’t waste your time or theirs.

I have to admit, what we’ve read about investigative reporting sounds rather romantic.  For example, this website suggests that if you suspect one garage is not fixing cars but charging the owners for the repairs, you could write about it.  It said you should take the car there several times and then go to your trusted mechanic and see is the repairs were actually made.  The problem with this is:

1)    How are you getting the money?- Do newspapers reimburse you for your losses?  Would the exposed shop be required by law to give you your money back?  If I took my car somewhere to get it fixed and they didn’t do it but I got charged $1,000 (as car repairs are often pricey) for the time being I’m out $1,000. 

2)    Most normal college students don’t have a lot of money or the contacts that this site suggests you have.  We normally have a few teachers we can talk to and a number of students.  To actually start some investigative journalism on campus would mean that we would have to put our own reputations on the line.  This is not something to play around with.  If you choose to go the other route, though, and do something off campus, unless you conveniently know of something to investigate, you’re going to not have a clue about what to write about.

From what I’ve read, it seems as though investigative reporting is more for the big guns.  The people who have an established career, the contacts, and the knowledge to write such a story. 

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5 Comments

Great post, Angela. You're right, to really sting the mechanic you'd need to show the repair bills.

But I'd bet your local mechanic might at least agree to check your car to see if anything's wrong with it, then you could take your car to the bad place and see what they say is wrong with it, then bring your car back to the first guy for a second opinion. That mechanic might agree to check your car twice just for the benefit of being named as a good guy in your article.

You could at least do that much without spending any money. Of course, if your car really does need repairs, you'd have to pay for them anyway. If your car doesn't need the repairs, you'd have evidence for contesting the charge. (Who knows, maybe the company will admit their mechanic made a mistake and they refund your money, before you identify yourself as a reporter. Maybe the real story is sloppy mechanics, not fraudlent management.)

Aja Hannah said:

But that still leaves the problem of having to pay the faulty mechanic at least until you expose them.

I agree that this makes investigative reporting sound romantic(the same way that the in the movies I mentioned on my blog). For me, it was especially the contacts section. Like I'll ever be at a club undercover and then sneak like a ninja to the bathroom to record what I gathered.

Also, when would the police bust into my house demanding my records or information. (I'm sure this happens in other countries, but in American I think this would more be an issue of sorting through FOI all day.) The only reason for me to back up my information would be a precaution in case my computer crashes.

Greta Carroll said:

Angela, I 100% agree with you. I wrote my blog about how essential contacts are to investigative journalism and how few we as students have. I think this website, while giving some good tips, does truly romanticize investigative journalism. It talks of your contacts breaking into places and stealing information, the police invading and searching your office for stolen information, etc. I don’t know about you, but I do not want to be involved in or (nor do I even know people who would be willing to) engage in such shady actions.

We are not Lois Lane or Clark Kent. We cannot stake out a hotel pretending to be a married couple, all the while spying on the building next door to gather information about a congressman. Nor can we break into that building to steal a file and end up being saved by Superman when the owners find you trespassing and stealing. (As happened in an episode of Lois and Clark called Honeymoon in Metropolis). This is the real world and things don’t work like that. Even if you do manage to get the information necessary, there can be serious repercussions to how and what you write in your article. In the real world, very bad things could happen to you.

Angela Palumbo said:

I thought about that the fact that if your car needs fixed, you'll have to pay anyway. I didn't know how many mechanics would be willing to just look at a car for free. Personally, I have such a contact. (My brother-in-law is a mechanic.) I guess that maybe connections like these are the contacts the author was talking about. You have to write about what you know. Now you just have to make it newsworthy without forcing it.

Angela Palumbo said:

Great additions all! Greta, you knew that your Lois and Clark reference would get me. lol. I have not seen Lois and Clark in a very long time, but it's a great show. As you know, I watch Smallville. This show portrays Lois as a hot-headed woman whose father was a military officer so she has no fears and a martial arts background (not to mention a love interest who can see through walls, has heat vision, and can move so fast that he is known as "the blur" and later will of course be called Superman). Unless I had these kinds of protectors, I would feel wrong writing an article like this. I would have to put this in the same category as (though I think it is much more difficult than) insult comics. You just have to have a certain kind of personality to do it...and a bit of a Christ-complex.

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