How to do investigative stories

Be respectful, listen politely and stick up for the little guy.

That doesn’t sound much like the advice of a hard-hitting investigative reporter, but Steve Andrews has been righting wrongs in the Tampa Bay area since 1985.  The investigative reporter for WFLA has uncovered stories ranging from corruption at the courthouse to sub-standard bridge construction to critical failures within the state agency charged with protecting children and the elderly.

Now, with TV stations around the country cutting back on investigative units and letting veteran reporters go, Andrews has continued to work on holding the powerful accountable.

For example, Andrews learned that a major water reservoir in the Tampa area wasn’t built to plan specifications and the 3-year-old reservoir was developing huge cracks in the walls.

Andrews says when he first started looking into the issue, he was told that it was no big deal and that the cracks were a cosmetic problem only. By the end of his reporting, the regional EPA had classified the problem as severe.

“You need to follow up and continually ask questions,” Andrews said. “Interviewing is an art, you have to think it through and decide what are the most important questions you want to ask?”

Andrews said he has learned to write down the most important questions he needs answered, and he won’t stop until he gets the information. However, Andrews is quick to point out that being tenacious doesn’t mean playing the tough guy.

“My strategy for getting interviews has always been the same – be respectful, be polite, be straight up,” Andrews said. “You tell the person this is what I’m doing, what I’m after and what I’m trying to get to the bottom of. You will get many more yeses than nos that way.”

Andrews is disdainful of what passes for investigative stories in some newsrooms. [For more on the current state of play, see “Endangered I-Teams.”]

So, how does he find his stories? Andrews says he does it by listening to the people who contact him or the station.

“A good reporter can tell you in 2-3 minutes whether there’s a story there or not,” Andrews said. “I’m in this business to tell people’s stories. When I moved from general assignment into investigative work, I became an advocate for change. I’m making sure that things run the way they’re supposed to, and if not, I found out why not.”