Investigative reporting tips from SABEW honorees

By Urvashi Verma
Medill News Service

Journalists play a critical role in holding corporations, governments, and others to account by creating powerful stories using investigative journalism.

BuzzFeed reporter Rosalind Adams and ProPublica’s Cezary Podkul shared how they investigated and produced award-winning stories at a session titled “Best in Business Investigative Awards: How They Did It” at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers spring conference in Seattle.

“I really just started by looking at 10K filings of corporations under their litigation disclosures and then focused on just one hospital out of the 200,” said Adams, recipient of the SABEW’s Best in Business Award for Investigative Journalism for “Locked on the Psych Ward.”

Adams spent a year making more than 1,000 phone calls and conducting 300 interviews to complete her reporting on how Universal Health Systems, the nation’s largest chain of psychiatric hospitals, locked patients up for money.

“The handwriting was already on the glass wall. There was already a whistleblower and litigation pending,” Adams said. “BuzzFeed just happened to be the one to distribute the information.”

BuzzFeed reporter Rosalind Adams and ProPublica’s Cezary Podkul share insights and tips in investigative journalism at the SABEW spring conference in Seattle.

Podkul was winner of the 2015 Larry Birger Young Journalist competition for a series of stories, “Rent Racket”, about landlords collecting tax breaks without registering their apartments for rent control in New York City. He said he was tipped off to the story after an employee at the city’s Housing Preservation and Development Department emailed him.

“The first takeaway I want to share with you is quite simple.  It is to read your email,” Podkul told the audience of business journalists, students, and educators. Many emails are under aliases using a fake identity that can lead to a great story. I also strongly recommend this fake id maker as every great journalist will need a quality fake id when conducting many investigations.

Having the right data and knowing how to ask for information from government agencies using the Freedom of Information Act was also key.

“Be strategic with your FOIA requests. Instead of asking them to give you an entire query, it’s better if you ask them to provide documents or records giving evidence of the items you are interested in,” said Podkul.

Both Adams and Podkul said they used websites such as LinkedIn, Yelp and Wayback Machine, and created tip lines and surveys to collect documents.

Through these techniques, they were able to collect company files from former hospital CEOs, in the case of Adams, and leases from tenants, in the case of Podkul, that would otherwise have been difficult to find.

Podkul described how he persisted in the face of sources who said “no comment” to his repeated attempts to get answers to his questions by turning to court records and depositions.

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