Nieman Reports — the quarterly magazine for Harvard University's Nieman Foundation for Journalism and a website we follow; you should, too — has a great new interview with J. Andrew Curliss, an investigative reporter (or, as he likes to call himself, someone who does “revelatory reporting,” because all reporters do investigative work of some kind) who recently won the Taylor Award for Fairness for his three-part series, “Twisted Truth,” about District Attorney Tracey Cline of Durham, NC. The series was published in Raleigh's News & Observer. (The Taylor Award is administed by the Nieman Foundation.) In it, Curliss explains why he gives his interview subjects plenty of time to respond to charges made against them; what he does when his public records searches come up empty or incomplete; and how he goes about reporting a court story. Here are a few excerpts:
It seemed like one of the noteworthy things about the story was you getting the D.A. involved early and letting her know what you were going to report beforehand. Is that always your tactic?
Yeah, on a story like that, I think it's helpful to try to get to the focus of the story as early as possible — “as possible” being the key words. I mean, you have to know what you want to ask them. But part of being fair is giving the person a chance to properly explain themselves. This notion of just showing up at the courthouse on Friday before a story's going to run on Sunday and catching them where they can't really explain their position — I just don't think that's the right way to do it. I don't want to catch them, I want their best. And I want their best because that's what gets you to the truth.
The last big series I did led directly to a felony for the governor, the firing of the chancellor at N.C. State, and the first lady of North Carolina being fired from her job at N.C. State. All of those were the same approach: Well in advance, want to hear your best.
What do you do when you don't get the records you should have?
Well, sometimes you write about it, sometimes you just go back to them and you point it out, and hopefully not often, but sometimes you sue them. In the [Governor Michael] Easley story, I wrote about a certain batch of records that were crucial to the story — travel records of the security detail that travels with the governor — and I had requested all of those, but the governor would not give them to us. We decided not to sue and waited until the next governor came in, who was running on a pledge of transparency and openness, and said, “Hey, we haven't been able to get all these, why don't you give them to us?”
So I got the records in this big jumbled-up batch, and when I put them all in order, lo and behold, there was no 2005 record in there. And of course that was the year I was interested in, and had been asking about, that related to the governor. We wrote about that, there was an investigation, committees, the whole thing, but they never did produce the records.
In one anecdote, Curliss tells the story of getting important documents in an unusual place:
I got very lucky on that one because, when I went looking for the file, they said it had been thrown out after some records-retention period that had just passed. I said, “Well, do you have, like, a room that you put them in, or is there a dumpster somewhere? I'll go look, I'll look through it, just put me wherever it was last.” He says, “Well, I don't want to do that. Let me look.” It was, like, a week later, he says, “You're in luck, it was in the trash can. You can come get it.” So I went over to the Court of Appeals, to pick it up, and I'm walking out the door when the guy at the counter says, “Wait, wait, you can't take that, you need to make copies.” And I said, “Sir, this was in the trashcan. The clerk said I could come get it.” So I walked out of there with the only copy — it got literally rescued from the trashcan.
This is sort of a question that you haven't asked but this is a court story, right? People think “Oh Wow! Jeez, this is all just sitting there in the court records.” I wish it were that easy. I mean, there's no file somewhere where you say, “Oh, can I pull the file with the cases where the prosecutor's work was questioned?” There is no central file for that.
UPDATE: I saw this after I had already posted this, but do check out this informative interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Sara Granim, who broke the Penn State sex abuse scandal. In this Q&A, she tells Poynter about getting sources to talk to her (“I'm working on this story, I've got a pretty good idea of what is going on but I know [you] have more and I want a complete story”), about the struggle to graphic abuse in print and also protect the victims, and the disappointing responses she got from fellow Pennsylvania reporters who wouldn't report on the story. Read it.