The Dig

An investigative reporter’s candid advice for uncovering life’s everyday truths

T. Christian Miller

Later this week, many of the nation’s best investigative journalists will be gathering in New Orleans for the annual Investigative Reporters & Editors conference. They’ll swap ideas, learn new skills and hopefully return to their hometowns to dig with renewed fervor. Full disclosure: I serve on the board of IRE, so can be totally unbiased in saying that I think the organization is the best resource in the universe for investigative reporters.

In honor of the big event, I thought I’d tackle an ur-question for many readers: where do you find stories? (Thanks @Jmark345, @zoegberg and others)

The short answer:

Sources.

Journalism is an odd profession. It’s produced on a daily basis, a miracle business that begins each day with nothing on the shelves, and ends with the creation of an entirely new product. It rewards speed, drive and ingenuity.

At the same time, in my experience, journalism is best played as a long game. When I started reporting, my focus was getting the story. My relations with my sources were purely transactional. I wanted info. The sources wanted coverage.

But over the years, I realized that I kept returning to many of the same people. And that those people were rising through their power structures, from city council to Congress, from project managers to senior executives.

There are great stories to be found in mining data and trolling through documents, of course. But I’ve found that good sourcing is the most consistent way to finding a good story. A good source is like Diogenes’ lamp. They can guide you through thickets of facts and lies. They know important stuff. And they can connect you to other people with similar traits.

All of which is to say that source development is the most important tradecraft that a reporter can learn. Source development is an overwrought term for a simple idea: Treat the people whom you interview with transparency, honesty and respect. They will learn that they can trust you with their knowledge, even, in some cases, their reputations and careers. They will come back to you over and over.

In short, a good journalist invests in people, not information.

A few of my favorite source development tips:

Ground Rules — Explicitly set ground rules at the beginning of an interview. Hollywood’s favorite investigative reporting terms — off-the-record, on-the-record, not-for-attribution, deep background — mean different things to different people. (Unless you are a British journalist, in which case Chatham House Rules are an officially defined, and kinda ominous, thing: “There is only one Rule.”)

Explaining exactly what you mean when you agree to such an arrangement is basic ethics, legally smart and avoids confusion. But it also sends a signal of your professionalism. You want your sources to be very clear on how you will use what they share with you. Your dealings with a source should be the opposite of a real estate transaction. No hurried signing of thousands of pages of super-scary documents. Just clear terms.

Tasty Beverages — The magic of a meal is not to be underestimated. Some ancient and unspoken convention dictates that you have a greater claim to someone’s attention if you have broken bread together. Or had a drink. Or five.

In the hurly-burly of daily journalism, where your desk becomes your dining table, it can be hard to make the time to put aside an hour or two to nosh with a source. But if you find yourself going back to the same person again and again for insight, go eat or drink together. Phone calls, emails or Tweets will never replace a face-to-face lunch.

The Source Date — This is perhaps the most powerful source development tool, but also the most difficult for a reporter whose job is to write stories. Make a date with a source just to talk. Not for a story. Not for a lead. And most definitely not when you need them for the news cycle.

The key: Everything is off the record. By that, I mean that nothing discussed is for publication. Instead, you want to get to know them better in a non-transactional setting.

It’s a controversial practice. You always risk having the source drop some incredible bit of knowledge that you cannot then make public. But I’ve found that the short-term risk is balanced by the long-term benefit of proving to a source that you’re not a callow vulture out for a quick shot of virality. At least, not all the time.

With a source date, you’re making an investment in the person, not the scrap of information that they may possess at a given instant. Your sources will understand that. They will see that you recognize them as a person who will do and say important things, now and in the future. That’s not only smart, it’s flattering. And flattery gets you everywhere.

Keep sending in questions, tips, pressing ethical dilemmas. Democratize journalism! Write t@propublica.org, or @txtianmiller.