A guide to investigating anything

Ever want to see inside the brain of an investigative journalist? Harvey Cashore spent 15 years investigating the missing Airbus millions, and half a year on a lottery theft exposé. The senior producer has been involved in dozens of complex investigations with his team at CBC’s the fifth estate and now the Investigative Content Unit. He recently led a workshop at the CAJ conference in Montreal titled “Managing Complex Investigations: four steps to investigative happiness,” where he offered tips and tricks for investigations big and small. Dana Lacey reports.

Harvey CashoreThe first tip: read, read read. “A lot of our stories come from the media,” Harvey Cashore says. His example: a newspaper story about an 81-year-old man who’d settled out of court after accusing a shop clerk of stealing his winning lottery ticket. The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) had fought the charge, and part of the settlement stipulated that the plaintiff couldn’t speak publicly about the case. The story raised a lot of questions for Cashore and his fifth estate team. Why wasn’t he allowed to talk? The team started snooping.

They found an internal memo (in publicly-available files) that showed OLG believed the man’s ticket had been stolen, dated just months after he made the initial complaint, and before the company launched a four-year legal battle to prove him wrong. These facts alone could have been a story in itself. But Cashore had one more question that he uses when embarking on any potential story: “How did it come to happen?”

That question, Cashore says, is the basis for all of his investigative journalism. This time, the answer resulted in a complete management turnover in OLG’s top ranks: 20 executives, including the CEO, were fired when the extent of shopkeeper theft, amounting to several million dollars a year, was exposed by the fifth estate.

During the workshop, Cashore offered a list of investigative dos and don’ts, and let attendees take a peek at how he organizes massive amounts of data on his laptop.

The Don’ts:

Don’t lie

“You might not want to be truthful about your purpose in order to gain access, but truth is essential,” Cashore says. “Truth builds trust, and trust gets results. You especially don’t want to lie to your viewers.” On the other hand, he points out, when you’re on a sting operation or using hidden cameras to capture something you’d otherwise not be able to get, you might not be able to tell the whole truth. Use your judgment.

Don’t try to prove your thesis

When conducting research, it can be tempting to build a case for the suspicions you’re investigating. But once you start the research, you should completely forget about your thesis, Cashore says. “You can start to believe something without realizing it,” which will sway your research and possibly affect your findings. At this stage, you shouldn’t be thinking about the final product. “Too often we think about output, and not input, which is collecting all the facts,” Cashore says. “You have to blind yourselves to output.”

Don’t say too much

When you’re interviewing a source, less is more, Cashore says. “The more you talk, the more you’re inadvertently influencing what people say.” The source might assume you already know everything and leave information out, or censor their answer if they think you’re bias.

Don’t grill people / Don’t argue

While it can be satisfying to win an argument, it doesn’t help you as a journalist, Cashore says. “It’s great theatre, but bad research.” When he’s tempted to engage with an aggressive or evasive source, he asks himself “Is what I’m doing going to get me more information, or less?” You might catch someone in an outright lie, but arguing or grilling may embarrass or enrage the source, and not let you speak with them anymore.

Don’t write/say anything you wouldn’t want revealed in court (or on the front page of the paper)

Remember: e-mails are forever. Resist the temptation to engage in petty or counterproductive conversation when someone gives you a hard time. As the saying goes, anything you say can be used against you in court. He uses the example of CBC journalist Terry Milewski, who used a tired, practically meaningless cliche in an email to an APEC protester (equating Jean Chretien to the “forces of darkness”) that later came back to haunt him when the CBC removed him from APEC coverage.

Don’t make friends with sources

Sure, you can be friendly. But friendship will affect your investigation and raises significant conflict of interest. Cashore admits that he’s broken this rule a few times and become friends with people involved in stories he’s working on. If you do become friends (or lovers) with a source, the story should go to another reporter.

Don’t play one source off another

This isn’t just an ethical issue, but an issue of access. If you’re interviewing a source and say “So-and-so told me X”, it can sway their answer or make people afraid to talk to you for fear that you’ll tell people what they say to you. You want to build a reputation as someone who respects privacy, otherwise people won’t want to tell you their secrets, Cashore says. “Often, sources ask who else I’ve interviewed. I tell them my rule is not to say who I’ve talked to.”

Don’t miss an appointment

Respect your sources’ time, or you risk losing the information altogether.

Don’t make promises

“Don’t tell a source that, if they talk to you, it’ll make a huge difference or result in change,” Cashore says. You have no idea what the result to your coverage will be, so don’t pretend you do in order to get a piece of information (see number 1).

Don’t take information you can’t use

This one is tricky, because you might not know what information will become useful later down the line. But if someone has offered information that you know is irrelevant to your investigation, politely decline. This helps prevent building expectations that you can’t fulfill.

Don’t quote

The final and most important of Cashore’s “don’ts”. When conducting research, he tells each source that he is not going to quote them, but is simply looking for background information. “All research is background,” he says. “This rule is the catalyst for many of my stories: you create an environment where people will talk to you.” Of course there are notable exceptions – like Cashore’s interviews with Brian Mulroney while researching the Airbus affair. Sometimes, once the research is done, it becomes evident that the story needs a human face – like the fifth estate story about a company pouring toxic waste into the sewer system – so Cashore will return to the source and ask their permission. Sometimes he uses guilt – the whistleblower in the toxic waste story was the only person who could stop the dumping – other times, he simply gives the source the option and hopes for the best (and, sometimes, it works).

The Dos

Try to be neutral

This can be harder then it seems.

Ask for help from interviewees.

 It can reverse the psychological flow of an interview, puts the interviewee at ease, and opens up more information.

Try to understand all perspectives/points of view

You don’t want to ruin a good story with unintentional bias. Both during the research process and once the story is ready to go, Cashore’s trick is to look at his facts and ask “is there any information I can find so the conclusion isn’t so bad?”

Make interviewees fell in charge

You need something from them, and cannot promise anything in return (see “don’ts). Sometimes, talking to a reporter puts a person’s job, reputation or even life at risk. Like it or not, you’re at the interviewees mercy. Don’t be the boss.

Be thorough
Question everything

Two rules every journalist should live by, no matter the story.

Be patient
Be respectful
Be polite

“The stereotype of an investigative journalist is tough, abrasive, rude…but none of these things will get you the story,” Cashore says. “You have to be the opposite.”

Explore logic

“Let the facts determine the story,” Cashore says. He builds chronologies of information where he includes everything: every person he talked to, every newspaper clipping, every document or fact or event related to the story. It’s an ever-evolving document, and occasionally he takes the time to sit back and read it to look for links. His example: by creating a simple chronology of facts, the fifth estate discovered that a man had been wrongly accused of murdering his wife. The story led to the man’s release from jail. “Build chronologies of information,” Cashore says “and the information starts to emerge on its own.”

Tape everything

The most important “Do”, in Cashore’s opinion. “For one, no one can write fast enough. Compare your handwritten notes to ones transcribed from your tape and you’ll be appalled by how much you get wrong.” Taping an interview frees you to listen closer, and allows to you listen more than once. “It’s amazing what you can miss the first time. When someone stops themselves mid-sentence and carries on, you often don’t notice until you listen again.” Just as important: a tape is proof of a conversation that can be used in court to cover your ass in case of legal action.

Finally, Cashore offered up his “four tips to investigative happiness”. It’s all about organization, he says. “There’s nothing better than simplicity in complex investigations.” When asked how many projects he has going at any one time, Cashore says
“I try to maintain the 80/20 rule. 80% of the time I’m doing one thing,
and 20% of the time I’m doing four or five other things.” If you’re
going to do be investigative, you have to devote yourself to it.

Cashore’s four steps to investigative happiness

To Do list

“The human brain forgets everything, including good ideas.” Cashore keeps an evolving to do list with hundreds of items (i.e. “pick up X document from court”) and spends a portion of each day reviewing the list and organizing based on importance. Not everything gets done, but that’s not the point: it’s a record of your ideas.

Question list  

During the research process, every time you ask yourself a question, write it on the list.

Source list

A directory of every person you’ve talked to for your story, including contact info and notes, but also of people involved in the story in general (i.e., names from a newspaper clipping). You may not ever talk to everyone, but by keeping a record you can read it analytical, and find connections you may not have noticed otherwise.


“Creating a chronology helps you see cause and effect and relationships, and see what doesn’t add up.”