Day #2: “A Document State of Mind”

January 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Phoenix, AZ: Day two of investigative journalism boot camp started off with a quick talk with veteran reporter Jim Steele over a bagel and some orange juice in ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.

Jim Steele, pictured right, has worked with fellow reporter Donald Barlett, to form one of the most impactful investigative duos in American history that continues on to this day.

Does the name Steele sound familiar? Because it should.

Think Steele, as in one half of the legendary Barlett and Steele investigative duo that broke and continue to break some of the most important Pulitzer, and IRE, award winning journalism work since 1971.

Steele delivered a short, but cardinal rule for 75 budding student journalists: “Never assume.”

Steele began his journalism career as a cub reporter working for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

That is, never assume that someone will never speak to you, and never assume which document will ‘break’ the case for you. “The best governments do not want you to know things,” Steele said. And more often than not, reporters will mistakenly spend their time waiting for a “blockbuster” of information when they should be spending their time piecing together a usually “blotchy” narrative, he said.

Even in a digital age that is unparalleled by its ability to break news and provide immediacy to millions in the blink of an eye, it’s nice to know that good ole’ shoe-leather reporting will never go out of style.

So what’s the secret to success for one of the industry’s rare long-standing collaborations? A love for reporting, vigorous peer editing and a scientific approach to investigations. “We test the hypothesis,” Steele said. “Is this true or is that not true?”

Steele and Barlett made a splash in the journalism industry back in the 70s when they broke the norms of investigative journalism and went beyond simply monitoring illegal activity. It was their work on ethics breaches and broken systems that resulted in “a huge tidal shift” in the investigative genre.

For the first time, it was all about “finding a root cause,” whether it involved illegal activity or perfectly legal activity that proved to be anything but clean.

But in an industry that has routinely sold itself short by making everyone an expert on something, it’s too easy to lose credibility and lose viewers at the same time.

Which is where the documents come in.

For Steele, it’s all about maintaining “a document state of mind.”

“The heart of great journalists is curiosity,” Steele said. And with those words, I couldn’t think of a better way to jump down the rabbit hole that is the world of investigative reporting.

Follow my feed on the Campus Coverage Project (#ccp11) on twitter @jiejennyzou.

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