Literary Cavalcade recently spoke with reporter Nigel Jaquiss about what it takes to be an investigative journalist. Jaquiss, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, writes for The Willamette Week, an independently owned newspaper in Portland, Oregon.  Here’s what he had to say:

LITERARY CAVALCADE: What is investigative reporting?

NIGEL JAQUISS: It’s finding information that’s in the public interest, often information that people would prefer that you not find or not publish.

: How did you get into it?

NJ: When I changed careers and became a reporter, I realized that the way to get to truth, or to get as close to truth as you can in reporting, is to go beyond what people tell you and look for documents or other primary sources of objective truth. That’s what led me into investigative reporting.

LC: How do you now distinguish between a rumor and a lead?

NJ: When somebody calls me and says, “X happened or X is true,” I want to say, “Tell me what you think the truth is in a sentence or two, and then tell me why you think that and let’s talk about how I might prove it.” And a lot of times “the how might I prove it” is the most interesting part, that’s where the reporting really begins.

LC: Once you’ve decided to pursue a lead, where do you go next?

NJ: Well, if it’s a story about a person, then what I do is just start looking for as much information about a person as I can find. Where do they live, do they own property, are they registered voters, if so, with which party? Have they sued anybody or been sued? Have they been party to other legal proceedings that may provide information about them? Are they in a profession that is licensed or regulated? Do they have a driver’s license? Where did they go to college? I want to cast as wide a net as possible.

: What’s your opinion about interviewing people on and off the record?

NJ: There are some people who say that you should only interview people who are willing to go on the record. On the record means you can use the person’s name and you can quote them and you can quote whatever they say in publication. I believe that I’m looking for information and I’m trying to get ultimately to the truth, but it may take me many steps to get there. A lot of times with an investigative story, you’re dealing with an uncertain situation. People may fear the loss of their jobs, they may fear retribution in all kinds of different ways. And so in order to get the information that people have, I want to go to them and say, "Let’s agree to talk off the record, and that means I can’t use what you tell me in print, or even refer to it by allusion, but I can use what you tell me to further my reporting."

LC: How do you verify your sources?

NJ: Well, I want to use documents whenever possible. While people will lie about their age or might even use a false name, most times when you fill out a document, whether it’s a driver’s license application or a voter registration card, people generally tell the truth. Court testimony is under oath; depositions are under oath. I want to get to documents, whenever and wherever possible, and then I want to verify what’s in those documents.

: Why is it important to interview people in person?

NJ: I think that it’s very easy to rely on the Internet or rely on phone calls, because those are the quickest, easiest ways to get information, but the amount of information that you get when you go see somebody, from their body language to their demeanor, to the way that they answer and don’t answer questions, is often very revealing. It’s harder to lie to somebody face to face than it is on the phone.

LC: What kind of trouble do journalists get into when they don’t thoroughly research or document their articles?

NJ: The biggest danger I can think of is that you’ve just been given bad information, information that’s not true or partially true or simply not accurate. People assume things all the time, things they’ve heard more than once, and think it must be true. Or they may have an ax to grind and they may tell you something that’s misleading about a person or a situation. You know, putting that in print, even if you yourself aren’t saying it and are attributing it to another source, it can still get you in a lot of trouble.

LC: What was one of the more thrilling discoveries you made through research?

NJ: I wrote a story about a school. In 2001 I got a tip that the worst middle school in Oregon had radon in it. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer. So I went and asked the school system for documents, and found out right away that yes in fact the school did have substantially above EPA maximum levels of radon. And the day we published the story, the school was closed, and it has never reopened. I think that’s what every reporter wants, to write a story and have action that follows.

LC: How do you force someone to respond to allegations?

NJ: If you ask a question and you don’t know the answer, you’re probably not going to get the answer that you’re looking for. Only if you have the documents and proof, when you go to have that crucial interview, do you get the response that you’re looking for. It’s really key to be prepared with the documents when you go to have the conversation. I still sometimes make the mistake of asking a question before I know the answer or can prove the answer.

Your Turn!

LC asked Nigel Jaquiss to come up with a writing exercise on investigative reporting. Here’s one of his favorites! Follow these steps and discover the truth about your school!

STEP 1: Everybody has an opinion about his school. But what’s the truth? Go to your state’s Web site and find out how it compares to other schools. Look for the following information:

•    Does it have “free and reduced lunch?” (an indicator of low income families)
•    Ethnic makeup
•    Test scores
•    The dropout rate
•    Attendance figures

STEP 2: Go to a national Web site and see how your school compares with other schools throughout the country in the above categories.

STEP 3: Gather all of these statistics and think about how they might explain your school’s reputation.

STEP 4: Interview a couple of students at your school. Ask them: “What do you think of our school? How do you think it compares with other schools locally and nationally?”

STEP 5: Interview an administrator at your school. Ask the same questions. If the statistics you have gathered contradict the answer you receive, then ask: “Given what you’ve said, how do you explain these numbers?”

STEP 6: Using your interviews and statistics, write a story that uncovers the truth about your school’s local and national standing.

STEP 7: Proof and polish your story. Double-check all of your sources. Then submit it for publication on Write It!