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Investigative Reports

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  2. Preparing reports on a case

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As the name implies, investigative reports are those that unearth significant information about matters of public importance through the use of non-routine information-gathering methods. Most day-to-day reporting involves investigation, but the true investigative piece requires an extraordinary expenditure of time and energy. Since the Watergate affair was uncovered by a pair of Washington newspaper reporters, investigative reporting has also been looked upon as primarily concerned with exposing corruption in high places. This connotation is somewhat unfortunate for at least two reasons. In the first place, it encouraged a few short-sighted reporters to look upon themselves as self-appointed guardians of the public good and to indiscriminately pursue all public officials, sometimes using questionable techniques in the hope of uncovering some indiscretion. Much of this investigative journalism turned out to be insignificant. In the second place, this emphasis on exposing political corruption distracted attention from the fact that investigative reporting can concentrate on other topics and perform a valuable public service.

Investigative reports require a good deal of time and money. Because of this heavy investment, they are generally longer than the typical print or broadcast news item. Broadcast investigative reports are usually packaged in thirty- or sixty-minute documentaries, in a series of short reports spread through the week on the nightly newscast (called "mini-docs"), or in a ten- to fifteen-minute segment of a news magazine program (such as 60 Minutes or 20/20). Print investigative pieces are usually run as a series of articles. Sometimes magazines will print a special issue devoted to a single report, as did Time in 1991 when it published a special volume on "Women in the `90s."

Interestingly, the mechanics of investigative reporting are similar in the print and broadcasting media. First, a reporter gets a tip or a lead on a story from one of his or her sources. The next phase consists of fact gathering and cultivating news sources. Eventually, a thick file of information on the topic is developed. These facts are then organized into a coherent piece that is easily digestible by the audience. Here the differences between print and broadcast reporting techniques become apparent. The print journalist can spend a good deal of time providing background and relating past events to the topic. Additionally, the print investigative reporter can draw heavily upon published documents and public records. (The Pentagon Papers story, for example, depended primarily on official government documents.) In television and radio, the investigative report usually has less time to explore background issues. Documents and records are hard to portray on TV, and less emphasis is placed on them. In their place, the TV reporter must come up with interviews and other visual aspects that will illustrate the story. Moreover, the format of the TV report will sometimes dictate its form. As noted above, one of the most popular formats on TV is the mini-doc. Mini-docs run for a brief period each day for several days. At the beginning of each, the story has to be summarized or updated. Toward the end of the week, the summary might take up the first half of the report.

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