Covering Youth Violence: Lessons from a Local Investigation

In this tipsheet from the 2011 Dart Center workshop "Getting it Right: Covering Youth Violence," Susan Snyder and Kristen Graham give advice on how to investigate youth violence.

These tips were derived from Snyder and Graham's experience reporting the investigative series "Assault on Learning" for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

1. Try to get all data in hand and analyze it before launching the investigation. We had some delays in getting what we needed, which held us back in our reporting early on.

2. When assembling your reporting team, try to include a mix of investigative reporter(s), beat reporter(s) and computer-assisted reporter(s). We found that mix to be key in fully developing our project.

3. Hold weekly or at least biweekly team meetings to discuss what you’ve found that week and what you will do in the week ahead. It’s important to use those meetings to keep the project moving and talk through problems as they occur.

4. Each reporter should keep a written record of highlights from his or her reporting at the end of each week. This is especially important for lengthy projects. It helps to see the road you’ve traveled.

5. Develop an identification policy for youths. We decided not to use a child’s name unless we had the parent’s permission or the child was charged as an adult.

6. Develop a critical mass of sources who are on the record because some of those sources are likely to get cold feet and back out as the publication date nears. That happened with several of our sources but we had many others so it didn’t hurt us.

7. Get a photographer assigned to the project from the outset. It’s a difficult thing to do in this era of declining resources, but we think it’s critical for both the print and online presentations.

8. Use an air-tight fact-checking system. We worked in teams of two and created a fact-check folder for each story. We started from the end of the story and worked our way up, checking every name, date,   place  and fact. We pulled out supporting documents, checked them, copied them and put them in the folder. We also presented our major findings to the district before publication to give district officials a chance to react.

9. Keep all reaction to the series in one place, which will help in planning and executing follow-up stories. We put the same reporter’s e-mail at the end of every story.

10. Use social media extensively. Our beat reporter launched her blog when the series published. She tweeted the links and hosted live chats. The paper also created a special Facebook page for the project. The efforts kept the conversation going.