Media minds get together to share tips—and hold each other to account.
This is staff writer Asaf Shalev. Last week, I was supposed to be sipping on whatever they sip on in National Harbor, Maryland, while attending the annual conference of the only organization to which I belong as a paying member: Investigative Reporters and Editors. Instead, I had the privilege of attending the IRE conference virtually, safe from the coronavirus, while drinking home-brewed coffee in the morning and gin and tonic in the waning hours of the day.
With a record number of about 2,800 attendees, tuning in from all 50 states and from 30 countries, the IRE conference was again the premier venue in the United States for investigative journalism. This year’s tagline, “Watchdog From Home,” speaks to our profession’s continued effort to hold the powerful accountable while complying with public health directives.
Among my favorite sessions was a workshop on interviewing people who might harbor sensitive information. My main takeaway was a reminder to think of them as people rather than sources. In other words, I might be under pressure to get the story, but I am most likely to obtain cooperation when I slow down. When I talk to people as part of an investigation, I want them to understand the risks.
In other sessions, it was fascinating to deconstruct published stories and analyze how the reporter pieced together their findings using public records, government data and interviews. Only a few days removed from the conference, I have already filed more than four requests for documents under the federal Freedom of Information Act or the California Public Records Act, inspired by what others had done. (This is normal procedure in the Weekly’s newsroom, though not always in such a large volume.)
As the conference’s keynote speaker Ronan Farrow pointed out, investigative reporting requires not only immense resources but also the freedom of the press. Journalists abroad are being jailed and in the United States, the president attacks them as enemies of the people. Meanwhile, virtually every news outlet is facing financial pressure as the pandemic exacerbates the challenge posed by Facebook and Google, which monopolize the digital advertising business.
Contrary to what you may have heard, the journalists working at your local and national outlets are not engaged in the dissemination of fake news. We abide by incredibly strict standards and ethics. There’s no better demonstration of our commitment than an incident that took place during one of the last sessions of the conference. It was a live Q&A event with Bob Woodward, whose reporting on White House corruption brought down President Richard Nixon in the 1970s. Woodward is still in the business and recently published a book, titled Rage, about the failures of the current White House. With the release of the book, Woodward also revealed that he had tapes of conversation with President Donald Trump from February in which Trump accurately described the coronavirus as extremely deadly and highly contagious. If published in March or April or May, Trump’s private remarks would have contradicted his public statements and shown that he was lying when he downplayed the threat of the virus, and might have saved lives.
Reporter Shira Stein questioned Woodward about his decision to withhold the Trump tapes. Instead of answering the question, Woodward attacked the question and the questioner. He was condescending to her and then said she owed him an apology. When reporter Karen Ho came on and repeated the question, she got the same patronizing treatment. On Twitter and elsewhere, the entire IRE community seemed to rally behind the two women. Even Woodward, an idol to many of us, is not beyond accountability.
I’ll conclude with an open request:Share your news tips with us. We vow to protect you as a source and put a spotlight on betrayals of the public’s trust.
-Asaf Shalev, staff writer, firstname.lastname@example.org