Digging up dirt: a closer look at journalism’s investigative process

I first met Lynn Walsh at the annual “Grade the Media” event hosted by the San Diego chapter of Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) in March of this year. Since then, I have maintained a professional relationship with the NBC producer and national SPJ president-elect, following her work and researching past stories she has written and/or produced. When I decided to take a closer look at how an investigative story was pieced together, she was the obvious choice and the obvious story was the one for which she won an Emmy: an investigative piece on the 911 call centers in the five counties covered by WPTV, the NBC affiliate she worked for in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Walsh’s investigative team uncovered several violations and misconducts perpetrated by 911 call center employees, from falling asleep on the job to hanging up on callers, even failing to dispatch emergency vehicles to the site of a car accident.

According to Walsh, the story initially focused on just one agency’s 911 call center in one county. “Since our viewing area involved five counties we submitted the same requests to all 911 senders in the counties to make it a more wide-reaching story,” she explained.

An investigative news team receives several tips for stories and investigations and Walsh carefully considers each potential story by holding it up against specific criteria. “One thing we (the investigative team) consider is: who will this impact,” she said. “I really try to tell stories that expose an issue or problem and bring a voice to the voiceless. I also look to see how this impacts the everyday person and their everyday life. If it does directly impact people, then that makes it a priority. “

Walsh and her team began investigating the call centers by submitting FOIA requests for the necessary information: 911 call recordings, employment records and disciplinary records for public employees. Obtaining the employment and disciplinary records was quite easy, she said; more difficult were the audiotapes of the 911 calls, however this was mainly “more an issue of technology though and not push-back.” Her team cited sunshine laws and case law to argue against any push-back or exemptions they did face.

Once her team – consisting of Walsh, a producer and a reporter – had all the necessary recordings and documents, it began the tedious work of going through each record and listening to each call one at a time. Overall, the investigation took approximately six months to complete; all team members were working on other stories as well, which sometimes slowed down or delayed their investigation. When they were done going through all the public information, it was time to reach out for interviews.

Walsh’s investigation led her team to dealings with ordinary citizens, entry-level employees, supervisors and city/county officials. The most difficult to interact with, Walsh said, were the city and county officials. “[They kept] pushing back on interviews, wanting to know the whole story before we were able to get an interview.”

The final phase Walsh’s team faced was writing and editing the actual story, which presented the biggest obstacle to overcome: “combin[ing] all the stories and focus on an angle. You have to really focus in and break the story down into simple areas of information.”

The team had to keep the viewer/reader in mind. Deciding which information to use and which to discard was difficult, Walsh said, but using too much information would overwhelm and confuse the audience and the story would lose its impact.

The story ran in April 2013 and eventually resulted in a regional Emmy award for Walsh and her team members, Jim Sitton and Dan Krauth. Their Emmy was one of nine WPTV won that year.

Walsh has this advice for budding investigative reporters when following a tip or idea: “Never start with a conclusion. Go into it with an open mind and curiosity. If you do this, you will always learn or find something. It may not turn out to be investigative but could lead to more questions which leads to an investigation.”

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