An investigative reporter's candid advice for uncovering life’s everyday truths
So let’s start this advice column by answering an obvious question: what’s this all about?
We here at ProPublica are in the business of finding stuff out, especially information that powerful people would just as soon keep secret from you, the public. Fundamentally, we don’t think this task should belong only to investigative journalists. It just doesn’t seem fair to have so much fun without sharing.
We’d like everybody to be able to make the world a little more honest. So we hope this column will help teach you some of the tricks of our trade. We hope you learn to use them in your own life. Uncovering information is a kind of superpower, after all. But use it wisely. You know — great power, great responsibility.
We don’t know how well this will work. We don’t know how long it will last. But we promise to try to answer your questions, so long as you keep sending them in.
Enough preamble. On to questions.
Dear T: How To Cope When A Source Doesn’t Call You Back? — @Billyjensen, true crime writer and producer.
Dear Billy: Two answers, one general and one a specific trick.
In Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham,” Sam-I-Am queries the beleaguered and unnamed creature in the rumpled top hat no less than 16 times regarding his attitude toward the possibly putrid breakfast treat. I propose that as a metric, the Sam-I-Am line is the limit to which one should aspire before giving up.
While such a refusal to take no for an answer might not be appropriate for every occasion (say dating your roommate or asking your parents to play Minecraft), it’s perfectly acceptable for demanding an answer from a public official.
Because here’s the thing. A source’s number one reason for not calling back is simple: they don’t want to talk to you. They think they can wait you out by ignoring you. Disabuse them of that notion. Too many people give up too quickly in their quest for information. Don’t. You pay their salary. You have a right to know. Your refusal to go away signals your determination. And it may help to get you a faster answer next time.
And now, one weird technique that I have found amazingly effective.
If you have an email address, send your first email with a subject line like this: “Question from taxpayer Billy.” When the person doesn’t get back to you, write a second email, this time with the subject line: “Question from taxpayer Billy #2”. The third time, it’s “Question from taxpayer Billy #3.” And so on.
Make no changes to the body of the email. Make no complaints about past failure to answer. Simply resend the email. And just keep sticking an ever increasing number at the end. I have personally never had to go past #5 — at least to get an acknowledgement.
Why does it work? I’m not sure. But I’d guess there is something deeply psychologically powerful about that ever incrementing number. It’s a silent accusation of unfinished business. A theft of their sense of daily accomplishment. A slow digital water torture. It gnaws at the soul.
There are plenty of other answers to this question. It’s one of the most delightful dark arts of our business. Every reporter, investigative or otherwise, has his or her own home-brewed solution. If you want to let us in on your trick, send it in. And if you want me to discuss the topic more, let me know.
Or, send in other questions. I’ll do everything I can to share knowledge, or search for an answer. I’ll answer lifestyle questions, too. I just don’t promise to answer them well.
And, finally, a challenge to start you on your way to investigative reporting: Figure out what the “T” stands for. First reader who does gets a prize — a professionally written Freedom of Information Act request, on the topic of your choice. But here’s a clue. My mother inspired my byline. “T. Christian Miller” was her special name for me, the kind that nearly every mother has deployed in a DEFCON 2 tone of voice to warn when a child is about to get in trouble.
When I became a journalist, that’s exactly what I vowed to do. For the past 25 years, I’ve covered cops and courts, corporations and conflict. I’ve tried to keep the Powers That Be on their toes, and make sure that the Powers That Aren’t get heard. Ultimately, it is what I hope that you, dear readers, will do in making use of this column. Demand answers. Unearth truths. Raise hell.
Next week: backgrounding your Tinder match, Part I.