Tools to do investigative journalism

Investigative journalism is the stuff that awards and big-time careers are made of — and it’s a passion for journalist Lynn Walsh.  Walsh is an investigative producer at WPTV in West Palm Beach, Fla.

“I really like being able to provide people with answers that they don’t have the time or the patience to uncover themselves,” says Walsh.  “I primarily have been looking at government agencies and issues of transparency and accountability.  Everyone has access, but unfortunately it’s time consuming to get it, so as an investigative journalist you’re really providing a service.”

WPTV’s investigative unit recently produced a story about six-figure salaries within local government agencies.  Walsh made it possible for viewers to search the data themselves.

Walsh has been out of school for just a few years, but she says technology has made it easier for younger journalists to produce investigative stories.

“With everything going online with tools and data and all the data mining you can now do, those of us who grew up with the Internet and who work with the Web on a daily basis have an advantage going in,” says Walsh.

So, what does an aspiring investigative journalist need to know?

  • How to use Microsoft Excel and Access — two software programs essential for crunching data
  • The laws journalists use to get public records at both the state and the federal level
  • How to search through data and to build your own database

“I do everything in Google Docs and Fusion Tables,” says Walsh.  “They’re easy to use and easy to share. I use Caspio to build searchable databases.”

Walsh says that because she made it clear to her employers that she liked this type of work, they gave her training opportunities.

“You have to learn how to ask for information and who to ask, and then be willing to pick up the phone,” says Walsh.

In her current role, Walsh works with a team of investigative reporters.   She sifts through and evaluates story tips, manages public records requests for the team, does shooting and interviewing and generally helps get stories on the air.  She says it’s not unusual to be trying to keep track of dozens of stories at once.

“To be an investigative producer, you have to be an organized person.  You have to be on top of things and meet deadlines, and you have to be flexible.”