Investigative Reporting: “How to Report the High-Impact Story”

A Virtual Conversation

 A packed McBee Room of the Headliners Club in Austin on Saturday morning, September 9, 2014, was treated to a lively discussion by four strong, award-winning Texas journalists about the challenges in the current media landscape for reporting that has impact. The event was a prelude to the annual Mike Quinn Awards Luncheon the same day.  The testimonials were inspirational and they also served as reinforcement that news organizations in Texas remain committed to often difficult and sometimes expensive major investigations in the public interest.

In preparation for their appearance, the journalists shared information and observations about the background, process and results of their projects. Those writings are preserved here in the form of a virtual conversation that complements the full video of the event that is posted on the Foundation web site as well.

 -John Lumpkin, event moderator  

Participants were:

Gold Showcase Award winner:
Andrea BallAustin American-Statesman

“Statesman Investigates: Quality of State Care”

Silver Showcase Award winner:
Dillon Collier—Reporter, KENS 5 – TV, San Antonio
“Fort Sam Police: June shooting on post reveals security flaws”

Green Award winner for Best Investigative Report:
Terri Gruca, KVUE – TV, Austin
“Mapping the Iron”

Green Award winner for Star Investigative Report:
Miles MoffeitThe Dallas Morning News,
“Chronic Condition: Dallas’ safety-net hospital compromised patient safety by focusing on image, growth and its academic partner, bringing it to the brink of a federal shutdown”

Why did your organization make a commitment for you to cover the stories that led to this day’s recognition? 

Miles: A shared purpose among our newsroom’s leaders: to expose the “underbelly” of one of our city’s sacred cows. The hospital was failing its most vulnerable people.

Dillon: Just in the last 15 months, we have reinvested heavily in our investigative unit at KENS 5. We have a news director who believes in watchdog journalism and we are owned by a company – Gannett – that prides itself in investigations.  Police officers came to us to say the Ft. Sam Houston shooting was not being portrayed accurately in the media, and, if their accounts could be confirmed, we were determined to correct that. All of the institutional changes, terminations and congressional inquiries were added bonuses.

Andrea: I can’t say that I got months and months of time to work solely on this. At the time, I was a metro reporter and we all know the pressing need to fill the paper. I say this because, as beat reporters, we tend to moan about how we don’t have time to do the big stories. We do; we just have to squeeze it in. Sometimes it takes forever. This took a year. What I did get from the newspaper was strong guidance from all of my editors, a willingness to pursue the topic and the kind of support a reporter really needs to feel like she’s doing something important. We hired a medical consultant to help, which was great and desperately needed. I was extremely grateful for that.

Terri: I’m fortunate to have managers who still believe that we should ask tough questions and hold people accountable. It’s a balancing act on all sides. We make sure we fill the daily beast – our scheduled newscasts – while still allowing our newsroom the opportunity to delve into topics that are important to our community. So I will often agree to do a quick turn and, in return, my managers are usually really good at giving me time to work on those projects when I get my hands on information that may take a little more time to develop. Our station holds fast to the belief that community service is still a big reason why we do what we do. I’m very fortunate to have worked with some great managers who foster that environment.

 What was your biggest journalistic obstacle in covering the stories (irrespective of your employer’s resources)?  What was the biggest organizational obstacle and what can you say to other journalists about overcoming those?

Andrea: There were several problems, but the biggest one was finding a strong, representative case study of a medical system gone awry. There were no names on my reports, so at first I had to find a few of those. Then I had to convince Ann Simmons’ family to talk to me. That took a while.

Working with limited facts from documents was so difficult because I didn’t understand the significance of the medical information I was reading. Without the consultant, this story wouldn’t have happened. I did not have any organizational obstacles other than trying to get the work done between other stuff. What I would tell other reporters is to just keep plugging away. Continually file public information requests and keep every single thing you get, even if it seems irrelevant to the story you’re working on. You have no idea when documents will come in handy and other stories may pop out of them.

Terri: The biggest obstacle was finding out where the old cast iron pipes were located. From the gas company, to the Texas Railroad Commission, to the PHMSA (the federal agency that oversees pipelines), everyone kept telling us pipeline location was a national security issue. As a result, they would refuse to provide details on where the miles of cast iron pipe were located. So we had to search for other ways to get the information. I kept asking what reports are gas companies required to file and where are those records kept. That’s how we discovered that all companies have to report gas leaks to the federal government. Requesting that information helped us determine where leaks were reported and the material of the pipes. So we used those leaks and created our own map. I would tell other journalists to keep asking questions. If you’re hitting roadblocks search for experts in the field who can help you find answers or ways to get information that people don’t want you to have.

Miles: Organizationally, it was probably the blowback from community leaders. They constantly complained and asked for meetings. We were demonized as reckless reporters trying to win big prizes. Political leaders tried to finesse and manipulate our bosses. This also became a journalistic challenge, of course, through delays on publishing stories to, at times, chaotic editing.  We faced restrictive privacy laws that hospital leaders could interpret broadly and use to shield medical mistakes that led to needless deaths and injuries of patients. That allowed them – for a while, anyway – to shield systemic failures behind the patient harm.

Dillon: I actually had the full backing of management to spend whatever it cost to get audio records from the city of San Antonio. They told me that going in. Before we were able to obtain and digest the 911 dispatch records, we basically had police officers portrayed by the military as being disgruntled versus a command staff at Ft. Sam that seemed unwilling to admit its obvious flaws. My advice to other journalists tasked with covering the military is to find alternate ways to get your information. I racked my brains for weeks on ways to confirm what the officers were telling us. The 911 records told the story for us. You cannot ignore the confusion in the voices of those officers on the recordings.

 Any innovation you can suggest for legacy media to maintain its watchdog role?

Dillon: Help each other. I recently teamed up with the San Antonio-Express News for a story on a suspended San Antonio Police sergeant. The newspaper had archives of the sergeant’s previous arrest, which he had paid to have expunged. So the only way to truly tell the story was to trade information I had uncovered for access to these archives. It made both of our stories better. I think the chic word for it is “synergy.”

 Miles: Make it a mission to transform the newsroom culture into a thoughtful, investigative culture. The mandate has to come from the top to hold people and systems accountable (often with a strong confident newsroom leader or leaders).  Then it has to flow down through a variety of ways: recruiting reporters with investigative mindsets, cross training of editors and beat reporters, collaboration between project teams and other departments, creative scheduling to give reporters breaks from feeding the beast so they will have time to think and time to dig.

Terri: Encourage curiosity. I think it’s more important than ever that newsrooms encourage people to request data and that you have point people within a newsroom who can help sort through it. We recently applied for a grant through IRE and were awarded two full days of free Computer Assisted Reporting newsroom training. It changed the way every person in our newsroom approaches every story. If you can ask the question, chances are there is data out there to help you find the answer. And if you can get the data you’ll have a slew of story ideas at your fingertips.

Andrea: Everyone is going to say Facebook, Twitter. I just discovered Other than that, I can’t say much. I’m pretty old school.

Why are you in journalism?

Miles: First,  it’s the only thing I can do. More importantly, it’s the one enduring passion of my life: to write about hard or hidden truths, and hopefully help others along the way.

Dillon: It’s the  perfect job for someone like me. I’m intense and aggressive, and I expect people to be honest. When they’re not, I can hold their feet to the fire. It’s the perfect job.

Terri: I love to write, I’m a curious person and always dreamed of helping people. Journalism allows me to explore, question, learn and enlighten. The bonus is that we get to help people in the process. Nothing can be more fulfilling than that.

Andrea: It’s fun. It’s like being a private detective. It’s a chance to help people that few people care about like the homeless, mentally ill, or intellectually disabled. It’s a chance to show government where we’re failing and how we can change things. Also, I’m in it because I still have a job, which is no small thing.

To watch the full presentation, activate the video below.

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