Covering breaking news with investigative resources

When breaking news hits, the first available reporter grabs the phones
or hits the street . There’s no time for fancy database analysis or
in-depth investigation. Or is there?

The scanner in the newsroom is blaring. On any given day, you can be confronted with pretty much anything. A wildfire is threatening your community. A bridge has collapsed. There has been a shooting on campus. A bus accident has sent a dozen children to the hospital.

This is breaking news, and there’s little time to do anything except send the first available reporter out the door and to the scene. There’s no time for any fancy database analysis or in-depth investigation. Or is there?

The strength of any sophisticated news organization is its ability to cover breaking news while also ensuring that it asks the right questions and gets to the truth of the situation. That means not just gathering facts, but collecting the pertinent ones. Sometimes that’s a challenging task, given the shrinking resources and smaller staff complement in many newsrooms.

For beat reporters, the task becomes somewhat easier. They have a ready-made list of contacts and brains filled with history and context. Events can quickly be put into perspective. This can not only save time, but also provide a road map to the right lines of inquiry.

There is another route to ensuring more context and meaning are brought to breaking stories, and that is a working knowledge of the tools and procedures of investigative journalism. Knowing how to find information quickly, where to access pertinent details, and how to analyze them can often mean the difference between a superficial and an informed report. True, a breaking story on a collapsed bridge will not immediately benefit from a database analysis that would take three months to complete. But knowing that there was a previously released database study of such a problem, and having the knowledge of how to get it fast, would be instantly useful.

Then there are the techniques of dealing with human sources that investigative journalism can employ. I have seen some journalists get consistently better and more informed answers to interview questions than others, and it almost always comes down to the manner in which those questions are posed. This is a field of social science that too many journalists either ignore or don’t take seriously enough.

Investigative Reporters and Editors in the U.S. provides a useful archive of data and suggestions for reporters who are following breaking news. If a particular plane has crashed, the IRE links to databases of repair and accident histories. There are tipsheets on what questions to ask and what issues to probe with such stories. Similar data are offered for many other kinds of breaking stories.

Canada also has sites that are useful for quickly locating pertinent data on breaking stories and other topics. I have listed a number of these sites at the bottom of my blog on investigative journalism in Canada. There is a great deal of relevant information available in online searchable public record databases, and every reporter should know how to access them quickly. A great directory of online databases from Canada and the U.S. is available at

Naturally, every breaking event will have its unique characteristics and issues. But a knowledge of how to access information and context quickly is crucial to covering such events meaningfully. Investigative techniques are a helpful guide.

(Image by kattanapilot. Used under Creative Commons license.)