Tips from Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters on how to become an investigative journalist
By Phillicity Uriarte-Jones
NBTB 2017 Counselor-in-Training
Reporters Matthias Gafni, Erin Baldassari and Tom Peele of the East Bay Times visited NBTB on Monday, July 3 to talk about covering the December 2016 fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland. The Times won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for its “relentless” reporting (in the words of the Pulitzer jury) including investigative reporting that uncovered the city and fire department’s failure to prevent the unsafe conditions that led to the fire, which killed 36 people.
When presenting to Newsroom by the Bay students, Peele described learning journalism as “osmosis,” where you absorb information and knowledge from the surrounding environment over time. Baldassari supported this claim, attributing much of her success to her time spent working in a small newspaper on the East Coast where she had to “do every job.” She reported on all news, from features stories to car accidents. Matthias Gafni happened to be on his weekend shift the morning of the Oakland Ghost Ship fire, showing that you can not be looking for the breaking news but be available when it does hit.
Here are tips from these pros:
Cover the cops: According to Tom Peele, ace investigative reporter for the East Bay Times, it all starts with knowing what police in your community are doing. Reading police reports and understanding the law are crucial to investigating incidents that go wrong.
Bootstrap your way into breaking news: Peele also believes that you can’t force yourself to fit the mold of a journalist who handles breaking news but instead must slowly strap yourself into the roll. Are you familiar with the legal system and how this issue is handled on that level? How are people in your community handling this? It is your responsibility to cover the bases to ensure your success as a short-notice journalist.
Do your research early: Knowing what exactly your dealing with before you are on the scene is crucial to asking questions that are not basic but are rather in-depth. You want to be able to ask the questions people will ask in their minds later.
Extensive and continuous reporting: Erin Baldassari knows the follow-up is just as important as the breaking news. Don’t simply stop at the initial facts. Follow up strong and consistently. Own your story. As soon as you find new information make sure that you are not only the first to put it out but make sure it is accurate and necessary.
Keep in mind the possibilities: When dealing with personal feelings on a topic, Baldassari urges journalists to know that there could be information out there that sheds light on a particular perpetrator. You don’t know all the facts or details so remaining as unbiased as possible in your reporting is not only necessary but urged.
Know what’s out there: Baldassari asks the questions that do not come to the forefront of most people’s minds. What other things have been written this? What are the legal documents out there?
Don’t be afraid to be friendly: Matthias Gafni, as a journalist, has to approach people as a complete stranger asking for intimate details while they are in their worst moments. Being friendly and relating to them, offering them information that they can’t seem to find elsewhere and being understanding of their situation creates an aura of trust. To get real interviews and have your own questions answered it is often necessary to first answer theirs.
Get comfortable being uncomfortable: In order to get the whole story, Gafni spent the whole day on the scene of the Ghost Ship Warehouse fire. He spoke to people that ranged from concerned citizens and worried family members to police officers and fire officials. When one phone went done he had one charging and would simply swap them out. You have to get out of your comfort zone and be there to get the real scoop.
Be there: Don’t depend on information being reported back to you, but create your own. Gafni did his first reporting for this story across the street in a Wendy’s parking lot. Cover your bases and know what happened in the area. Capture different perspectives.