Investigative Journalism In Hispanic Newsrooms

Written by on June 16, 2017

One afternoon at work I found myself wondering, “what am I doing here?”. I had just had a heart to heart conversation with a high-level news manager on investigative journalism.

We talked about how we needed more resources to do our investigative stories. “I need more time to produce and deliver my stories on the air. It would also be great if we could add an investigative producer to the team”, I said.

He looked at me and with great honesty confessed:

“Investigative journalism is a luxury that we cannot afford. Leave that to CBS’s 60 Minutes”.

This is the reality in many Hispanic newsrooms in the United States.




 

Investigative Journalism

Investigative journalism requires a dedicated team of reporters and producers who can deep dive into a specific subject for long periods of time. The job demands keep them away from covering the daily beat.

News managers are faced with the choice of feeding the beast, the daily newscast, or saving the cake for later, the special story.

This article provides background and practical information for reporters, news directors and station managers who are considering producing investigative journalism in Hispanic newsrooms.

In my experience, general market stations producing investigative journalism have more resources.

This article is broken up in three topics:

Investigative journalism in Hispanic newsrooms 3

 

1. Fundamentals

The 80/20 rule

As reporters, we tend to ask ourselves this question: What do I need to do to produce investigative journalism?

While this is a great obvious question, I learned that this is not the first premise we need to answer.

A strong organizational foundation must exist before investigative journalism can be produced. I like to call it the 80/20 percent rule.

Investigative journalism in Hispanic newsrooms 4

Investigative journalism in Hispanic newsrooms

 The 80 percent

The foundation of a successful investigative team relies on the direction the news organization wants to take.

Before you even try to file a FOIA, or open records request for supporting documents for your story, you need to have a very direct and open conversation with the news director, station manager and the reporters.

  • Strong journalistic ethics

How committed is the team to seek the public’s best interest and publish the tough stories?

Would management back the story up even if it means losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising revenue?

Does the organization has a legal department that is willing to fight for the story by providing their best advice?

It is always easier to drop a story due to liability concerns. Consulting with Legal and Standards departments is vital to investigative journalism.

What happens when you get bullied, threaten or intimidated by the subjects of your story? And I say when, because it will happen.




You will receive intimidating letters or emails demanding that you retract your reporting. The organization needs to be aware, and have a plan to respond in compliance with the law.

  • Clear interdepartmental boundaries

Sales and news don’t work together. The sales department shouldn’t be involved, informed, or engaged in the news gathering process.

When you contact a business that advertises with your organization, it is common for them to call their contact in the sales department instead of calling the reporter back. This is a conflict of interest and should be communicated immediately to the news director and station manager.

When the subject of the story is also an advertiser, the organization should be prepared to take a loss and pursue the story.

  •  Build trust

As an investigative reporter, you need to prioritize building trust and having constant rapport with your news director. He or she must know of the topic of all your stories and their progress.

Any concerns should be addressed with Legal and Standards departments.

  • Strong news directors

It helps to have managers with experience in investigative reporting. They need to be ready to fight and push back if the organization is being intimidated or threatened with lawsuits or story retractions.

  •  Ask for time

One of the most difficult challenges that I have faced as an investigative journalist is to have enough time to produce and deliver stories.

Don’t be surprised if some producers or news directors expect you to deliver your report in less than two minutes of on air time. That is a crazy request! It’s like asking an investigative newspaper reporter to deliver that in-depth story in a 300 words article.

You need time to invest in the reporting and time to deliver it on the air. Learn to negotiate for more time with your producers.

The 20 percent

Having a strong foundation will set any competent reporter for success. This is where the other 20 percent comes into play.

Strong reporters with the ability to get sources to talk, to gather supporting documents and write, will complement the structure well.

Good investigative journalists must develop the following characteristics:

Investigative journalism in Hispanic newsrooms 5

Investigative journalism in Hispanic newsrooms

 

  • Determined

This is not an ability that can be taught. This is a talent, a gift, and you either have it or not.

Determination  is the spark that makes you discussed when you learn that people are being taken advantage of, disrespected, mistreated or abused. It is the drive that you feel when you learn that people, in positions of power, are overstepping their boundaries.

Determination is the spark that fuels an insatiable desire to pursue truth and justice.

Have you felt it?

Are you willing to listen to people and to do the work needed to prove or dismiss their complaints?

Sometimes you must go through so much trouble to get the job done. It is much easier to report on the fatal accident, the shooting or the stabbing. But if you stay up at night thinking on those folks and those issues, I can tell you are on the right path.

  • Accessible

Some of my stories are born out of observation. But most of my investigations start with a tip, and you never know when you’ll hit the jackpot. That is why you need to research every single one.

Make yourself reachable and available to the public. Social media is your best friend. Perhaps, your news organization can create a hotline and request viewers complaints.

  •  Resourceful

What do you do when you hit the wall?

What happens when the subjects of your stories don’t want to give you an on-camera interview?

You need to be resourceful and creative. Dig into public records. I have found great supporting information in divorce decrees, 911 calls, court or bankruptcy documents and lawsuits, just to mention a few.

  • Fair

This is something that I need to keep reminding myself of all the time. You are not the people’s advocate, you are a reporter. Don’t victimize people, state the facts.

It is human nature to want to believe every tip or complaint that you get from people. However, you cannot assume that they are saying the truth. Claims need to be documented, and complainants need to be willing to do on camera/ on the record interviews disclosing their identity.

Be skeptical of people who are not willing to come forward.

When I investigate, I establish the expectations from the beginning.  If the complainant is not willing to fully disclose their identity for the story, I don’t necessarily discard it. Instead, I try to see if I can document those allegations through other means.

Can you find other people who are going through the same situation and are willing to testify? Can you find supporting information in public records?

Don’t let your personal relationships or friendships hinder your ability to report fairly. Influential, famous or powerful people can be intimidating. Don’t give in, go after the truth!

2.Tools

Investigative journalism in Hispanic newsrooms 6

Open Records

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or your state Open Records laws are your best allies. Don’t let the term intimidate you.

FOIA is the federal law that gives us the right to request access of records from government agencies.

States have their own guidelines and there are some exemptions as to what information you can get.

Get familiar with these:

Be ready to push back. If your FOIA request is being challenged for compliance with exemptions, ask if you can get a partial disclosure of information. Something is better than nothing.

Keep track of your FOIA requests. Agencies need to reply in a timely manner. However, I have received responses a year and a half after my request was submitted. Go figure!

I recommend that you send an email to file a FOIA or an Open Records request. The sooner you do this the better.

Use this template that I have compiled of several online examples as a guide:

  • Open records template:

 

Email:
Subject line FOIA REQUEST/OPEN RECORDS REQUEST
Dear ______________:
Under the Freedom of Information Act I am requesting an electronic copy of the following documents:
• [identify the documents or information as specifically as possible].
As a member of the news media affiliated with {insert news organization} I request that you waive all fees associated with this request. This is made as part of news gathering, in the public best interest and it is not intended for commercial use. Should you deny my request for a waiver of fees please notify me of the charges. I may decide \ to pay the fees or appeal your denial of my request for a waiver.
If you have any questions please contact me at xxx telephone or via email.
Thank you for your consideration of this request.
Sincerely,
Name
Address
City, State, Zip Code
Telephone number

Public Records Databases

Learn where to look for public information. It is very important that you create a list of useful links to refer to.

These are some of the public databases and sites that I consult on a regular basis. If you live in North Texas you will find this very useful.

Reporters from other markets can use this as an example to customize it to their area of coverage.

Dallas County:

www.dallascounty.org

Dallas County all records:

http://dallascounty.org/services/record-search/

Dallas County civil records:

https://courtsportal.dallascounty.org/DALLASPROD

Dallas county criminal records:

 http://www.dallascounty.org/services/public_access.php

Dallas County background checks/Jail inmates:

 https://www.dallascounty.org/criminalBackgroundSearch/

Dallas County property appraisals:

http://www.dallascad.org/

Texas Secretary of State:

https://direct.sos.state.tx.us/acct/acct-login.asp

Federal courts:

www.pacer.gov

Texas Real State Commission license holder search:

https://www.trec.texas.gov/apps/license-holder-search/

Sex offender registry:

https://records.txdps.state.tx.us/sexoffender/publicsite/Application/Search/Caveats.aspx?SearchType=Name

Tarrant County courts:

https://egov.tarrantcounty.com/web/guest/home

Nexis search (fee based)

3.Strategies

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Investigative journalism in Hispanic newsrooms

These are some of the strategies that I used to produce my investigative stories:

• Work on several stories at the same time and maintain your news director involved.

• File open records requests ASAP.

• Know everything you can possible know about the person that you are investigating prior to the interview.
                 o  Request an on-camera, on the record interview, and tape it with his/her knowledge.
                 o  Let subjects do the talking, ou won’t believe how much information they reveal when they believe are in control of the interview.

• Start small. Investigations are like puzzles. Start putting a few pieces together and you will end with the bigger picture. Document one complaint and publish a story. If this is a pandemic problem, you will receive calls from more victims and you can expand from there.

• Write for the lawyers: You must document every claim, state the facts, and don’t leave room for misinterpretation.

• When your script is ready, hand it over to your producer for review. If you are reporting on a delicate matter, you should submitt the script for approval to the Legal and Standards departments.

• You will find that there are different types of investigations:
             o Some uncover fraud, abuse or mistreatment
             o Others raise awareness on an issue that might not be straight out illegal but perhaps unethical. It is in the best interest of your audience to report on this issue as well.

Results

Many subjects of my stories ended up behind bars. In the end, that is why we do investigative journalism. Not because we want people to go to jail, but because we believe in a society where truth and justice prevails.

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Investigative journalism in Hispanic newsrooms

 

If news organizations really want to make an impact in their communities, they need to empower their teams to pursue investigative stories. These are the stories that can result in criminal investigations and in the implementation of new laws to prevent fraud and abuse.

Investigative journalism can provide in-depth information to educate viewers to make better decisions. It can improve people’s ability to access valuable information that to impact their quality of life and result in the betterment of our society.

If you find this article useful make sure to share it with your colleagues and your social media circles! Information is power, use these tools and you will see results.

 Thank you!


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