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Investigative reporting back in style, with bright future, professor says

Craig Chamberlain, News Editor

Released 3/12/2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The news business may be in constant turmoil these days, but investigative reporting is alive and well, says a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner who is writing his second textbook on the subject, due out in June.

“Investigative reporting is coming back into style; there’s a resurgence of interest in it,”

says Bill Gaines, who will retire this summer as the Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois. Even with frequent news about staff and other cutbacks at newspapers, “I know of no major papers that have cut back on investigations,” he said.

The same Internet that is forcing newspapers to rework their business plans has given papers big and small the chance to look at stories that were once too time-consuming or expensive, Gaines said. Reporters can collect information through a newsroom computer that used to require days of legwork or camping out in a document archive.

One result is that “investigative techniques are being used widely by all reporters and not just on special occasions by a select few as in the past,” he said.

Along with his book, Gaines has launched a Web site with how-to guides for doing specific investigations, the three topics so far being judges, insurance companies and nursing homes. The site is directed especially toward small- and medium-sized papers.

Gaines worked as an investigative reporter at the Chicago Tribune from 1974 to 2001, following 11 years there covering the police and suburban government. He learned, over and over, the value of documents, of knowing where to find public information, and what that information might produce.

“I was able to get stories that other people missed because I went to places where you could find the documents,” Gaines said.

In one case, he found the home of a key source by searching property records at area courthouses. In another, he learned that money sent to a post office box was not going to a legal fund, as advertised, but for personal use – and did so by simply calling the post office and asking who had access. In yet another, he learned about a company’s notorious business practices by way of one revealing line in its filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Gaines’ stories, along with his low-key manner, fly in the face of misconceptions about investigative reporters often fostered in the media. “Sometimes investigative reporters are portrayed kind of like cowboys,” which is far from the common reality, he said.

He smiles at the story line that has a reporter going undercover, disappearing for weeks, and then coming back with the whole blockbuster story. Equally amusing and misleading, he said, is the scene found in so many movies: “There are these crazy reporters, they’re in a mob, and they’re attacking somebody with a microphone for an ambush interview.”

That is not investigative reporting, and neither is the talk of pundits on news talk shows, even though people often think otherwise, Gaines said. And just because a reporter asks tough questions on air doesn’t mean he or she is doing investigative reporting either, he said.

“Investigative reporting is not reporting on investigations (by others); it’s investigating and then reporting on your findings,” Gaines said. “You have to do the whole thing from scratch … it has to be the work product of the reporter himself or herself.”

In Gaines' definition, investigative reporting also means looking at something that is a public issue and “something that somebody’s trying to hide.”

Gaines’ new textbook, “Investigative Journalism: Proven Strategies for Reporting the Story,” to be published by CQ Press, takes a case-study approach to the subject. The cases are based on real investigative stories, but with names and places changed to protect reporters and their sources. This also allows for greater detail about what happens behind the scenes, including the fights reporters often have with newspaper editors and lawyers, he said.

In 12 chapters, Gaines looks at the hows and whys of investigative reporting, including a lot on the use of the Internet and other computer-based research. He deals with specifics on investigating everything from individual people to the federal government, covering subjects such as city hall, police and courts, consumer fraud, big business, health care, charities and churches.

In his first textbook, published in 1993, Gaines said his reporters were heroic and “always did the right thing.” In this one, however, he shows them making mistakes and what can be learned from those mistakes.

The book even includes “one nefarious investigative reporter who’s just a schlock operator, who uses all kinds of subterfuge, laziness, takes payoffs.” He doesn’t give the other side a chance to comment, tries to make them look stupid, Gaines said. “He does all these bad things that a reporter should never, ever do.”

In Gaines’ telling of the story, however, and for the purposes of good journalism education, “he doesn’t end up well.”