September 23, 2013
Experts' Expert: Investigative reporter Lee Fang discusses his document gathering techniques
Q: It seems like a big part of your reporting involves following the paper trail, utilizing various documents. How do you access them, and are they mostly public, or are you securing them confidentially via sources?
A: You know, I don't restrict myself in how I get documents for my reporting, I just try every approach that I can think of. But what's been very helpful to me is just familiarizing myself with the different ways that a lot of documents are just placed online. So, for certain IRS documents, nonprofit disclosures, there are third parties that've done a great job in digitizing these records and putting them online, and I've kind of gained from how unorganized these documents are, because I think very few reporters actually take the time to look through them because it's so unorganized. And just taking the time to carefully sift through these types of disclosers that are often overlooked has been very helpful to me. And also just kind of monitoring different government agencies and state governments that are digitizing and putting up records that ordinarily might've taken some leg work to locate, that's been helpful. At the same time, I've tried to familiarize myself with some of the more traditional document gathering techniques, like FOIA of course and other public record laws. And finally, you know, there's been an explosion in social media websites and other websites dedicated to the dissemination of documents. There's Scribd, there's SlideShare, there's about 10 other websites that simply help folks disseminate their documents. So that could be a lobbyist proposal, that could be different brochures from public affairs firms, and a lot of this is very interesting and helpful to my reporting and it's not something that even existed a few years ago. So its been good for me.
Q: And how did you develop this documents or records expertise? It seems like a lot of people wouldn't even know how to read the documents you're relying on, much less write about them.
A: When I kind of started out blogging and doing online research I kind of had such deadlines that I had to produce [laughs] content on a regular basis, and you had to get creative when you're under that type of pressure. The other thing is, I like looking at reporting in the New York Times or something else that's interesting and trying to pick through, "How do they get those documents?" and replicating it for myself because, you know, no one candidly reveals how they report a story, right? It's kind of the mystery of journalism. But you can tell, if you look carefully at a Wall Street Journal story or whatever, if you narrow it down — OK, this was their source. Where in the world are theses sources even available — it just gives you ideas for maybe future reporting and that's something I always try to do.
Q: What advice do you have for young journalists, particularly looking to get into progressive magazine journalism?
A: You know, I think two things; one, find your niche, at least initially. Is there a political race coming up that that you want to cover, is there a policy issue that you're interested in? Become an expert and do it really well, because I think that leads to a lot of other opportunities even if you don't want to take this one type of reporting for the rest of your life, it's good to establish yourself in some way. And two, don't follow the herd. There are a lot of, I think, things you can do to just try to replicate what you see in a major media outlet. I would say: try to take it to the next level. Is there a research method that you don't think anyone else is using? Obsessively take control of that and exploit it. Is there a way of reporting or disseminating your reporting that no one's doing? Try that. Just be creative because there's a lot of competition and you have to distinguish yourself in some way.
[via The Investigative Fund]
September 23, 2013 at 08:01 PM | Permalink
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