Tuesday, September 14, 2010

PNWA 2010 Writers Conference: Conducting Investigative Research Workshop

(Image:  James Stewart as P.J. McNeal in Call Northside 777

Research is a key element in historical wargaming.  Whether you're developing a tactical scenario or designing an entire set of wargame rules; details about weapons, uniforms, vehicles (or horses), tactics and the generals that led armies into battle, are just a few elements that must be correctly integrated into the game to make it feel authentic.

With this in mind, it seemed natural for me to attend Bruce A. Smith's workshop on Conducting Investigative Research.   As an investigative reporter with the The Dispatch, a weekly paper focusing on south Pierce County, WA; his workshop was geared for newspaper reporting:

However, his investigative techniques could apply to historical research, especially in the case of recent history, where it is possible--not to mention advantageous--to conduct live interviews with people who were directly involved in newsworthy events.

First of all, how do you start out as an investigative reporter?

--Ask the local newspaper to take you on as a freelancer and even offer to submit a couple of free articles.
--Call the editor, introduce yourself, but be brief and concise.
--Try to get a press pass.  This will grant you access to organizations and individuals who'll treat you like a professional.

Notes on conducting "research beyond Google:"

It's best to go directly to sources.  That is, individuals who were involved in the event you wish to report about.  However, finding people can be difficult--especially if they don't want to be found.

Bruce mentioned two websites that can be helpful in tracking down such elusive folks--legally.

1. White Pages:


2. Name From Phone:


For events long past, but still within one's lifetime; retiree associations are a good place to start inquiring about anyone you may need to talk to.

If your investigating a crime, then county law enforcement agencies are the best place to start, since most non-federal crimes are handled at this level.  Jail rosters can also be examined, since they are considered public records.

Face-to-face interviews can be difficult to conduct, especially if you're dealing with someone who's traumatized by an event.  In this case, be sensitive and offer condolences, if appropriate.  Identify who you work for.  If someone is reluctant to speak, don't press the issue--you can still write the story and note that your subject didn't want to talk about it.  Keep in mind though, even if someone does want to talk, the conversation may go dry. 

Don't burn your sources and avoid libelling anyone. 

Near the end of the workshop, Bruce discussed some of the realities of investigative research:

A lot of people lie, or at least have a hidden agenda.  They do so for various reasons, but this is especially true if money and power is involved.

Public information Officers (PIOs) are spokespeople for the agencies they represent.  So any statements from these folks or the Public Relations (PR) Department will, most likely, contain an element of "spin."  Unattributed stories, that is, one without an author's name attached to it, is often an agency's veiled press release.  In order to weed out the wheat from such chaff, newspapers often use 3 or more, reporters to cover the same story.

Finally Bruce gave the class some tips on staying alive.

Yes, he meant staying alive--literally.

As an investigative reporter you might be confronted by well-connected and potentially dangerous people.  People who don't want their soiled undergarments exposed to the public.

What to do when you find yourself outside the realm of polite society?

--Expect some form of harassment.  This can be minor, such as in the form of sudden financial audits or frequent traffic tickets.
--If the story is important to you, convince yourself not to run scared. 
--And finally, if you get thwarted, or the fear factor is too much to bear, then back off.

Yes, back away from the story.


Because there's always another story to be investigated...

No comments: