Business, Politics & Society

How to Approach In-Depth Reporting

Bob Woodward

Lesson time 9:19 min

In-depth reporting requires you to be persistent, focused, and proactive. Bob discusses the value of giving your case the time it deserves and getting out in the field to verify what you've learned from your research.

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Bob Woodward
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When I was 16, 17, and 18 in high school, being raised in Wheaton, Illinois, which is this town outside of Chicago where Wheaton College is, Billy Graham went there. It's a very sanctimonious atmosphere, couldn't buy or sell liquor, the people who went to Wheaton College had to sign pledges-- no dancing, no card playing. And working as the janitor in my father's law firm, I would go in at night to clean up toilets, ashtrays, and looked at papers on my father's desk and some of his partners' desks, and said, wait, oh, this is kind of interesting. Oh, this case involves one of my classmates in high school. Then I would follow the paper trail up to the attic where they had the disposed files, and discovered that the father, or an uncle, or somebody was involved in a dispute that was kept secret, sexual assault, physical assault, horrendous IRS cases, all kinds of business fraud. And so I became somewhat obsessed with looking at the disposed files, and you see the lack of correlation between what's in those real documented court and police files, from the way people present themselves in town. And it was a lesson that things aren't as they appear, and that you need to find the disposed files if you want a fuller version of what the reality is. I guess I can't emphasize this enough, the roadblock often is you, that you're not creative enough, that you're not determined enough. In reporting, you need to focus. You need to say, this is the story I'm working on. This is what I'm trying to get to. This is what I'm trying to understand, what I'm trying to unravel, gather information, to find documents, get people to talk, try to verify, try to see if there are other sides to the issue, and then have the experiences and go there yourself. Show energy, curiosity, as I say, work extra hard. Work two hours, maybe four hours extra than the eight hours that's in the normal workday. Instead of going to bed or watching television make 3 calls, or whatever to people at home, or go see people. And then do it aggressively. Don't sit by and be passive. One of the things we did with reporters at one point at The Post, we had a little sign that we pasted in the top of their computer, it was FAA. And that's not Federal Aviation Administration, it means focus, act aggressively. Building a case is the process of gathering the interviews, the documents, the witnesses for the story, and that takes time. It's so much about time against the problem and exploring all avenues. So what you do is you immerse yourself completely in it. I think that's the core value that a reporter brings. And I think people understand that, and they want facts. And in the case of Nixon, if you look at two years, two months of coverage, it was step by step. There were dramatic moments, but it wasn't all done in a tweet. It wasn't done in one day. It wasn't done by one reporter, or a group of r...


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Bob Woodward was just 29 when he changed a nation. His Watergate reporting with Carl Bernstein helped expose the corruption of the Nixon presidency. Two Pulitzer Prizes and nineteen best-selling books later, the legendary journalist is teaching his first-ever online class for anyone who wants to find the truth. Learn to investigate a story, interview sources, and understand how the news is written. The next history-making story might be yours.



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Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

I love it! MasterClass gives students the opportunity to learn from true masters in their profession or craft. By weaving their stories as examples of important concepts, I'm able to gain knowledge to use in my own life and profession.

Learning to slow down and step back is a lesson that isn't taught in an internet news world. It was refreshing and inspiring.

Slow burner, really warmed up to this and then couldn't stop watching! I was enthralled! Bravo!

Great work Bob! You are a national treasure. Thank you for the knowledge.


Comments

Josh F.

The Mayflower example... holy smokes. How many times have I done exactly the same thing! Being thorough growing up was never a strong suit. I have executive functioning deficiencies, what can I say. So to compensate, it was just pure go go go; slow down and you'll stop; always be scared of making one of these mistakes.... funny thing. That's when they happen. The only way to prevent them is to actually stop and think. As BW points out with this near-miss, seeing is believing, always verify your sources, and always see for yourself! At this point, I'm curious how people are approaching this class. I decided to take it because, thanks to a career change, an area that needs some polish and some technique is my written communication. Over the years, with the growth of Facebook and other micro-blogging sites, it is very easy to crack of short missives rife with opinion and sanctimoniousness (such a beautiful word to say, and even better when you get to use it!), but to communicate effectively, and dispassionately is a craft, that requires nurturing through mentorship and most importantly, doing. So this class is part of my morning routine, to get my mind working early in the day. I'm making some notes, and doing some of the readings when I can, but with an already jammed schedule, it's hard. How do some of you handle the reading and assignments? My plan is to read what I can now, think about issues that I would like more light shed on, watch all of this again, before committing to doing a full piece. Curious to hear what others are doing with the course.

C H.

Nice share about the Mayflower coffee shop. Would like to hear of other mistakes or near misses, its very helpful and practical advice.

Meg N.

I loved this lesson - Understand that how people present themselves is how they wish to be seen, and is not always how they actually are, and get your butt out there into the world to observe and confirm (or disprove) what you've been told. I worked in relocations for 9 years, and for the most enjoyable part of that time was given the task of writing 'destination reports' to acquaint transferees with the area where they would be living or the schools that would be available for international transferees in that area. Two locations I knew well (Tokyo & Yokohama) but 4 times I needed to write destination reports on places I had not visited (Kobe/Osaka, Nagoya, Tsukuba, and Kaihin Makuhari) - so immediately did my research and then requested a 'look-see' trip to those places. There was the perception that this was not needed, and that we could send tourist information or photologs, but that would not have given the details needed for social status reports on residential areas, local town magazines, grocery shopping for local and non-local produce, easy and difficult commutes, need for an automobile versus public transportation adequacy, maid services that could be engaged, discount outlets in the area, etc. This was not journalism, but it was an education in not believing everything existed as it was presented, and moving my butt to go out and confirm what I'd been told.

A fellow student

I would like to know how many lessons are there, and how do I go back to a previous lesson :(

J. G.

I sometimes wonder, is journalism dead or is it that it has never been exposed? Is there such a thing as “true” journalism?

Pamela Martin O.

I wrote a book about a cold case (that is still open) of two persons who disappeared on Hilton Head Island and the subsequent apparent suicide of the person who caused their disappearance. This took place ten years ago. I relied heavily on FOIA information from the Sheriff's office. There was a lot of intrigue in the case that involved used cars shipped to Kazakhstan, strippers at a local club on the island, gambling and more. We have uncovered more information than we originally found now that the book is out. The FBI was on the case at the time but is no longer working on it. My question is this: How do I ask the FBI if they are still involved in an aspect of the case but are not allowed to talk about it? I understand phrasing questions to the FBI is very important. Thank you.

Maxine S.

As an aviation professional, I appreciate hearing another acronym for FAA, Focus Act Aggressively. The aviation industry provided tremendous leadership in developing means and methods for conducting rigorous investigations, e.g. root cause analyses (RCAs). RCAs reveal there is almost never one reason for an accident, it is a culmination of many preventable errors. I have been consuming more MSM the past 2 years. Using my technical knowledge as a benchmark, I am horrified at how much misinformation is repeated by MSM reporters. Information that is verifiable by FAA, pun intended. I understand a journalist does not typically have the time to operate like the NTSB, nor is easy to synthesize into 500-700 words the results of a lengthy investigation. Volumes of information collected during in-depth investigations, and the multiple layers within, are useful for subsequent stories. Maybe my questions will be covered in subsequent lessons, but how do we as consumers of media better motivate journalists, and the organizations that manage the system, to hold themselves to FAA? I'd like to suggest adding one more letter - FAAF - Focus Act Aggressively and Follow-up.

Pureum K.

This is the problem with academia too. We don't do field research- How often do we talk to practitioners :(

Erik S.

Ithe Statler H... coffee shop story made a huge impression on me on the importance ( or even obligation) one has to getting up out of your chair

Catherine G.

Getting your rear out of your seat helps not only to verify facts, but also helps when it comes time to write. You have the ability to "show" rather than tell. I work on the crime beat and there was a fatal shooting outside of a bar where a bystander was killed. I went down to the bar, spoke with some of the patrons and found out the man who was shot wasn't a regular patron of the bar where he was shot like the police news release had suggested, but another bar down the street. I was able to chat with people who knew him, which other media outlets did not get. This isn't a case of investigative journalism, but it just illustrates the importance of getting your butt down to the scene.