Journalists gathered earlier this month in Houston for the annual Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) conference. Photo courtesy IRE; Annie Mulligan.
Photo: Annie Mulligan
Photo: Annie Mulligan

Opinion: Honing our investigative skills

Just over a week ago, I was hanging out in Houston with nearly 2,000 friends and family.

It wasn’t a family reunion, but kin of a different kind — attendees at a conference put on by Investigative Reporters and Editors, a legendary national and international journalism training organization that has been an essential part of my journalism life for nearly three decades.

The organization’s annual conference pulls together journalists from all mediums, including print newspapers, television, radio and online-only operations, to hone our craft. Scores of panels and training sessions over four days cover a wide range of topics.

There’s an odd thing about Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE). It’s organized around the principle that journalists will share skills and tools, critique each others’ work and tell others in their field how they get their stories. In some cases, reporters from head-to-head competitors like The New York Times and The Washington Post are on the same panel, sharing tips with audience and each other. They put aside their competitive instincts for a few days each year in an effort to improve and advance the craft of investigative reporting.

Investigative journalism requires special skills and IRE is the best place to learn them. This year, besides the Houston conference, the organization offered 68 other training events, including 4 internationally, that reached more than 5,500 journalists, educators and students. The sessions often include essentials like interviewing story subjects, finding and cultivating story sources and learning to use public records. And then every year there are new techniques and tools in more arcane panels like the one this year on the Python programming language that data journalists use. Panels and training also cover areas of public policy that often result in investigative news stories, like campaign finance, business regulation and tax policy.

Many of the old-timers at the annual conference go back decades with the organization, which was founded in 1975. I owe much of the success of my career to tips I picked up at conferences over the decades.

You might think in a time of concern about the business of journalism, attendance at a conference like IRE would be declining. In fact, the opposite is true; attendance at Houston was a record high for the organization. Newsrooms have figured out that investigative journalism is a way to distinguish their work in a crowded media market when audiences are demanding more accountability coverage for government and public institutions. Especially among TV organizations, membership in IRE been growing for years and stands at more than 6,000.

And it’s not just the Washington-based journalists you hear from on Twitter and see on the Sunday morning news shows — there are members from almost every state and Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

The influence of all this training can be felt in investigative reporting that creates change and improves lives across our nation and the world. Consider just a few of the outstanding investigative reports that were presented awards at this year’s IRE conference:

  • A collaborative investigation of New Jersey news organizations, NJ Advance Media, revealed New Jersey’s broken system for tracking police use of force. Police have the legal right to use force on others, and it should be monitored and tracked. For nearly two decades, state and local officials in New Jersey failed to oversee this power, which allowed violence against citizens and cost millions of taxpayer dollars in settlements. The 16-month investigation produced a comprehensive statewide database of police use of force that allows people to search every incident by local officers and state troopers from 2012 through 2016. As a result, the state attorney general acknowledged the work and the state plans to use it as a model to build its own tracking system.
  • A project by The Dallas Morning News examined Texas health care companies’ denial of life-sustaining drugs and treatments to thousands of sick kids and elderly and disabled patients. The Pain & Profit series exposed how years of poor state regulation let corporations drive up their profits by denying or skimping on treatment for many of the 700,000 children and disabled adults who relied on the state for medical care. Texas officials hid these problems from the public; they would not have been known without the newspaper report. The results have been significant, from immediate treatment for individual patients profiled in the series to systematic reforms and improved oversight.
  • A shocking story, developed by Anchorage Daily News , that grew out of the rape and death of a teenage girl in a remote Alaska village. A village police officer was arrested and it turned out he was on probation for an earlier crime. The reporter on the case suspected this was not a unique situation. He found that local governments across Alaska regularly hire officers and other public safety workers with criminal records, sometimes in domestic violence or felony convictions.

Your AJC did not win an IRE award this year, but has won previously for reporting on Doctors & Sex Abuse, and, with news partner Channel 2 Action News, police shootings in Georgia. This year, we had six AJC journalists at the conference, beefing up their skills to bring you more and better investigative reporting.

I always find the conference inspiring. We hear so much about the demise of journalism, and it’s true that we face a disruption in traditional business models that challenge the funding of many organizations. But readership is up and audiences are hungry for great work requiring the skills of trained, professional journalists. The work showcased at IRE is among the best journalism in the business.

I’m personally very proud of the success of IRE. I attended my first conference in Portland, Oregon, in 1992 when I was an editor for USA TODAY. I quickly got involved in helping IRE and served on the board of directors and as an officer from 1994 to 2006. During the time I was on the board, we expanded dramatically and brought a level of professionalism into the organization that has a big impact today.

In my early days with IRE, it was quite different. We didn’t have much in the way of staff and so board members were often tapped to help set up for conferences. More than once I got the job of taping down the electrical cords in training rooms where computers were set up. My special qualification for that role? I’m short, and I could get under the desks without bumping my head.

This year, IRE had lots of professional help to set up the huge conference, which was terrifically managed by IRE Executive Director Doug Haddix and his incredible staff of 14, plus student helpers from The University of Missouri, where IRE is based. The organization has come a long way over the years. It has had tremendous influence on investigative reporting and journalism at large, improving and spreading this essential kind of journalism that a democracy needs to succeed.

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