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Business, Politics & Society

Hunting Down the Documents

Bob Woodward

Lesson time 11:14 min

Bob teaches you the importance of documentation—both acquiring documents for your reporting, and documenting your own research. He offers multiple ways to find written evidence to build your story.

Bob Woodward
Teaches Investigative Journalism
In 24 lessons, learn how to uncover the truth from the greatest journalist of our time.
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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...

Find the real story

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.


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

Eye opener with key, actionable insights from decades of experience and mastery of his art.

I enjoyed listening to the class. Very interesting topics discussed.

This is a great class for learning the art of neutrality, in our dark time of deception. Bob is clear and engaging. Loved every second!

I was able to learn so much in this Masterclass with Bob Woodward. He is very informing and has helped me grow my passion for journalism. All of his personal stories and experiences really helped me understand what he was communicating, and made it an amazing class to take. I really enjoyed it and have learned a lot.


Terri R.

I loved the session with Bob. Our oath, " I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me GOD." I am not a religious person; in ...fact, I am entirely confident religion is the number one reason human beings are at war with each other. I know (since I was a kid), faith is made up of humans so that they do not fear death. I believe it is all around us. GOD is every human, every species, all matter, everything that exists in time and space. I agree with BOB and our justice system here in America wholeheartedly. It is my #1 duty as an aspiring journalist to seek the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me GOD. It's not easy to choose honesty over acceptance, and I do every day. Terri Rogers

Kenna & Jeff P.

This is a very interesting take on obtaining documents. Through several classes in my college journalism department, we were drilled with lessons on FOIA and states' counterparts to obtain public documents, but then here Bob is saying that for the most part those aren't the best options. It is true that making those requests can be incredibly frustrating with slowness, redactions, and stubborn people who don't understand that public documents are supposed to actually be available to the public. But at the same time I think it's a bit unrealistic to teach that you can always just go out and find those same documents from people -- you can always ask, but most of the time you'll get a firm "no," and no amount of your own persistence to "not leave without the document" won't change that no to a yes.

Talsma T.

An excellent example of the inaccuracies involved in people's memories. Can one really recall exactly what happened 40 years ago?? Check today's stories.....

Meg N.

I understand the need to document, and to retain documentation... the challenge that is made clear here is, the organization of the documents retained, so that information can be found again later! Very good points raised, very well presented. Thank you!

Vincent H.

I work for a small online outfit where I publish one article a month pertaining to the spying trade. Nothing fancy, no fiction, but serious and factual with a little bit of opinion commentary in a vein that I would compare to my heroine : Gail Collins. The result is that, even though I've trained as a historian, I find myself neck deep in a very real form of journalism. My problem is this : one lawsuit and we all go belly up. As I said, we're a small outfit. How do I protect myself from lawsuits. How do I prevent them from happening in my writings? Is the overuse of the word "alleged" enough? p.s. at the end of each article, I list all of my sources, mostly news websites like The Independent or the NYT...

Kimberly S.

Yes indeed. Slow and steady wins the race too. I also admire how you use video and audio recording equipment plus a witness to cover your ass in this:

Maxine S.

I tend to rely on publicly accessible information, so I appreciate Mr. Woodward's suggestion to do more asking for data from personal interactions for "the purpose of getting it right". A few key lessons I've learned from finding documentation: Scan material of multiple stakeholders. Always read the footnotes and their references. Read newsletters written and published by non-journalists. Read the comments to articles and online posts.

Ulf J.

It's very interesting to hear Bob tell me about that clark and his memory. Life has also taught us that it is so easy for us not to remember correctly all the times. My wife and I have the agreement that if we discuss one thing, we can look at, for example, Wikipedia, how it is. If we can not figure out a truth, we'll leave the case here, we will not tell anyone who is right - ps we've been married for almost 30 years - and we look for another 30 years.....

Luis M.

Resilience goes a long way when looking for documents, information and data that support the insights allowing for informed writing. The story about the clerk felling asleep and knowing when to ask again for taking that document is a fantastic example.

Kent H.

I thought this was an excellent lesson and teaches how you simply need to be with people, get to know them, and they will tell you what you need to know. Never think that in the end people don't want to tell the truth. We all want to be a hero in our own mind and do the right thing.