How to Build an Investigative Story with Lee Fang of The Intercept

The September 24th installment of Sentient Sessions, “How To Build an Investigative Story,” featured investigative journalist Lee Fang. Drawing from his experience with in-depth reporting for ThinkProgress and now with The Intercept, Fang shared valuable insights and advice for people interested in exploring this kind of journalism.

Fang began by identifying what distinguishes investigative pieces: new information. Investigative articles explore issues that haven’t been reported on before, or that are concealed or obscured in some way, and that the public has an interest in knowingwhether it is about a powerful individual, corporation, or system.

Finding new information is therefore a major component of any investigative report. Given Fang’s longstanding interest in the ways that public policy is influenced by money and organized interest groups, he used this type of story as an example of ways to build a strong investigative piece. Many of these strategies can be applied to animal agriculture or other topics as well.

Finding available information. From academic books and articles to YouTube videos including news segmentsthere is a wealth of information available online. Some corporations are required to disclose financial information according to certain schedules; be sure to check these schedules to stay up-to-date. Look for investor presentationsthese can be excellent sources for finding out what a company is up to, and can be very revealing when compared with what the company may publicly state. For publicly-traded companies, look up the annual 10-K summary which provides information on revenues, projections, risks, and leadership.

Filing document requests. It is possible to obtain information that is not publicly available. Corporations and agencies are subject to different laws, so make an effort to understand these. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests are filed to federal agencies. Every state has its own laws, such as the Florida Sunshine Law, Maryland’s Public Information Act, and the Wisconsin Open Records Law.

Talking to sources. Sources can be experts you turn to after doing research; a powerful person with whom you build a relationship and who will funnel information to you on an ongoing basis; or a whistleblower. It’s important to adequately vet your sources. For whistleblowers providing witness testimony, try to get multiple witness accounts to boost the credibility of the claims. And always respect a source’s request for anonymity.

As is often the case with reporting about animal agriculture issues, it’s important to find the human element of the story. When asked how to get reporters, editors, and the public excited about animal agriculture investigative pieces, Fang had this to say:

No matter where you stand, there’s a general feeling of being left out. That normal people don’t have their voice heard. The system is rigged in many respects. For animal ag stories, so much is shaped by a small number of companies. Small farmers, regular people, they don’t have power. Smithfield compelled employees to keep showing up at slaughterhouses even when they were sick and showing symptoms. It didn’t provide PPE or plexiglass dividers. This is a human rights concern even outside the [animal advocacy] community. It is a political story about power.

The next installment of Sentient Sessions, “Collaboration and Activism: Building Strength Through Alliances” will take place on October 22. Get your ticket today