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Where Do We Find Our Story Ideas?

They’re everywhere. Sometimes, we drive right by them.

At the beginning of the year, we asked ProPublica Illinois readers what they wanted to know about how we do our work. Thoughtful, challenging questions have been rolling in ever since, and we’ve been answering them in an occasional series of columns. In this dispatch, reporter Jodi S. Cohen answers a question about how we decide which stories to pursue.

I would like to know how you find new ideas about which you write articles. There was an article about the trash companies in New York. Another article about organ transplant priorities … also others like when ProPublica investigated a conspicuous failure to pursue misconduct cases among Chicago Police, or when it found out about Chicago minority neighborhoods being charged higher premiums than white neighborhoods even if accident risk is the same. How do you go about finding those new ideas? Is it by brainstorming? Or following on tips? I would love to know!!! —Ali Fleih

What a great question! I also often wonder how my colleagues get their ideas, so I jumped at the opportunity to answer this question.

Story ideas come from all around us. Sometimes they come from tips, such as a story I wrote this year about research misconduct at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Tipsters or whistleblowers see wrongdoing, they let us know and we investigate. We depend on them to help us hold people and institutions accountable.

Reporters are, by nature, curious (and skeptical!) and we see stories all around us. At times, they are right in front of us. The Chicago Sun-Times’ 2004 “Hired Truck” series began when reporter Tim Novak wondered about a red truck he saw on his way to work every day, parked at an abandoned gas station. The truck had a sign that said it was leased to the city’s Hired Truck program. Novak wondered why it was sitting there and he decided to find out why. That observation kicked off an investigation that found the city was paying clout-heavy companies to do little or no work. The fallout included indictments against 49 people.

Reporters are always on the lookout for ways to inform the public about the world we live in, including about wrongdoing. We go to all kinds of public meetings — for school boards, city councils and park districts — and not only report the daily news but look for the bigger stories by spotting trends, questionable spending and more. We ask A LOT of questions.

At ProPublica, we strive to produce “investigative journalism with moral force.” We work to expose abuses of power as well as wrongdoing by individuals, corporations and organizations, and we hope to spur change to make the world a better place. It can be difficult to decide which stories to pursue, so I bounce ideas off my editors, other reporters, my husband and my friends. I keep a list of potential stories and see what continues to pique my interest — and what I find myself talking about with friends. I often think, “Is this a story I would want to read?”

As a staff, we talk with one another about what we see and hear in the community. At ProPublica Illinois, the regional newsroom of ProPublica, we have regular brainstorming lunches in addition to our routine spur-of-the-moment chats. In fact, I brainstormed the response to this question with my colleague Melissa Sanchez. She told me, “I think how you find stories changes or evolves as you do more reporting on a single topic, both because your understanding becomes more nuanced, more sources come to you with information, and you start seeing trends you didn’t know to look for before.” What a great explanation.

At ProPublica, we also regularly ask readers to get involved with our reporting, and that can influence the stories we pursue. My reporting on UIC’s research misconduct didn’t stop with the first story that exposed the professor’s research failures and the university’s insufficient oversight. We asked readers to contact us if they or their family members had been patients of the doctor or her research subjects. About a dozen families responded. We shared the experience of one family — as told through the mother’s journal entries — in a follow-up story published last month.

Here is some behind-the-scenes insight into how we found three of the stories that Ali, a student at Wayne State University, asked about.

The series Driven Into Debt has explored how Chicago’s ticketing practices have bankrupted city residents.

“I got started on this track due to reporting by our colleagues in New York on how the U.S. bankruptcy system is failing black Americans,” Melissa explained. “Theirs was a national story that included a short piece on how bankruptcies were on the rise in Chicago, and it cited some research showing that tickets were partly to blame for that increase. So I wanted to flesh that idea out and figure out what was happening in Chicago that led to this bankruptcy boom.

“Reporting out that story opened up my eyes to a number of other stories, including on disparities in license suspensions, how bankruptcy attorneys get paid and how the city is issuing tickets against its own ordinance,” she said.

Melissa, working with Elliott Ramos at WBEZ, didn’t let up. She and Elliott kept digging into the data, requesting more records and doing more interviews to understand the scope of ticketing. They identified 20,000 instances of duplicate ticketing, in apparent violation of the city’s ordinance, and looked into why some neighborhoods get hit more than others. And they found that Chicago’s decision to hike the cost of the city sticker violation to boost revenue did not lead to significantly more revenue, but it did drive more low-income, black motorists into debt.

Some modest reforms were passed last week in response to their reporting, including changes to the city sticker program to make it easier for low-income drivers to pay for city stickers and some debt forgiveness for motorists who file for bankruptcy under Chapter 7, in an attempt to steer them away from Chapter 13 bankruptcies that usually end without debt relief. And aldermen are now considering more substantial changes to the way Chicago goes after people who can’t afford to pay their tickets.

Stories on liver transplants showed some U.S. hospitals don’t put Americans first for the procedures.

Charles Ornstein, a ProPublica senior editor, is one of the most experienced health care reporters in the country. He said he began chasing this story after he received an anonymous tip in the mail encouraging him to look into the number of liver transplants performed on foreigners by Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans.

He explained: “I have been interested in transplantation for more than a decade and wrote a host of stories on the topic for The Los Angeles Times. Organ transplantation is more transparent than other areas of medicine, largely because organs are such a scarce resource. Using data on the website of the United Network for Organ Sharing, I was able to quickly determine that Ochsner and several other hospitals performed a disproportionate (though still small) percentage of transplants on foreign nationals. The issue was even more relevant because the nation’s transplant regulators were debating how to make the distribution of livers fairer. We invited Lee Zurik and Fox 8 WVUE New Orleans to join the story. The resulting story raised many questions about the fairness of the system.”

Our work on police accountability in Chicago showed how some officers who engaged in misconduct escaped punishment.

While investigating the Chicago Police Department’s disciplinary system with Chicago Tribune reporter Jennifer Smith Richards, we discovered some curiosities in case files about incidents in which officers had been found to have committed misconduct. In the data field where the date should have been written for the days an officer took off for a suspension, there was instead a blank. We saw cases labeled as “pending” that had been open for as long as a decade. We started asking questions and requesting more records and found that the department and its oversight agency actually had lost track of disciplinary cases. Officers who were supposed to be punished continued to work without facing any consequences. We also uncovered cases that had languished in a slow-moving appeal system and others in which the initial discipline order differed from the final punishment. We found that officers who appealed their punishment almost always won. These stories came about because we spotted something unusual and decided to investigate. Our stories about the Police Department’s disciplinary system took turns we didn’t know existed until we began digging.

Speaking of story ideas, please let us know if you have any. You can email me at [email protected] and call me at 708-967-5723. You can also call us or reach us confidentially at ProPublica Illinois through Signal at 312-282-0273.

Do you have a question about journalism? Send it to us at [email protected].

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