By Chris Kromm
One of the most common questions I hear from new journalists is, how do I become an investigative or watchdog reporter? Especially now, with newspapers slashing budgets and staff, those interested in public interest media — bloggers, students, "citizen reporters" and others — don't know where to turn for training, mentoring and support to do in-depth reporting that can make a difference.
That's why the Institute launched the Freedom Journalism School, a program to train a network of new journalists in the South in how to do investigative journalism and do it for the long haul. On March 26, we held our first school workshop, "How to Be a Watchdog Reporter," at the UNC School of Journalism and it was a huge success. An engaged group of 22 participants including freelance reporters, reporters for local websites and students from Duke University, NC Central and UNC-Chapel Hill showed there is a broad audience of new media journalists who don't have many opportunities to learn about investigative and public interest reporting.
Also key to the success of the school was an All-Star team of award-winning journalists: Eric Bates of Rolling Stone magazine; Paul Cuadros at the UNC School of Journalism; Ron Nixon of The New York Times and Sue Sturgis of Facing South/Southern Exposure. The panel was moderated by Fiona Morgan, an Institute board member and Media Fellow at The New America Foundation. A few of the key themes that came our of the workshop:
1. A key ingredient of investigative or watchdog reporting is to go beyond the "he said, she said" news approach and question the official version of events. "You have to question what politicians and leaders are telling you," said Eric Bates, who oversaw Rolling Stone's explosive investigation
2. Sue Sturgis emphasized the need to develop a "beat" or area of expertise, where you can bring your passion and knowledge to bear on an issue for maximum impact.
3. When investigating a person, company or institution, Cuadros enumerated the wealth of data sources available to create a full picture of your subject, instead of just going off one or two facts. That also involves talking to sources who can provide key details and context -- including the person or organization you're targeting.
4. Finally, Ron Nixon drove home the need to not just investigate the "what" but the "why" -- if one part of town gets more money or other resources than another, how did that happen? Who makes the decisions? What's the history? "Laying out the facts is important, but you also need to show the patterns," Nixon said.
When the workshop was over, everyone seemed hungry for more -- the room stayed full for an extra hour as participants followed up with further questions and ideas. The workshop is the first in a series of events the Institute hopes to hold for its Freedom Journalism School program; if you'd like to hear about future workshops or learn more about the program, email us firstname.lastname@example.org.
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If you'd like to receive a copy of the Institute's Watchdog Reporter Resource Packet, please email us at email@example.com.
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