Investigating Guns with the Indianapolis Star's Tim Evans
Make sure your facts and assertions are bulletproof. Look for subjects and issues that no one, not even the most ardent gun-rights activists, can dispute. Make your story about people.
Tim Evans spent five years as an investigative reporter for The Indianapolis Star, writing on a wide range of topics including gun laws and violence. He and his colleagues undertook an in-depth investigation on gun permitting, how guns get into the hands of people with criminal convictions and history of and/or propensity for violence, and lax oversight by State Police.
Here you’ll find tips and insights from Evans to help you tell investigative stories on guns most effectively.
What are your top three tips for covering guns most effectively?
- Make sure your facts/assertions are bulletproof, because you will be challenged and criticized
- If possible, look for subjects/issues that no one, not even the most ardent gun-rights activists, can dispute
- As much as possible, make your story about people
Drawing on the Star’s investigation into gun permitting, what were the biggest challenges you encountered, and how did you transcend them?
- Fighting officials’ reluctance and slow response to public records request -- we remained persistent and, in some cases, found other sources to get the information from (i.e. going to local police, rather than state police)
- Sorting through the mountain of data we finally assembled, more than 900,000 public records (from courts, state and local police, and prosecutors) and making sense of what we found – we invested a lot of time and took our findings to experts/advocates on both sides of the gun debate before fine-tuning our approach to the story
- Finding “poster children” for the system breakdowns we were exposing – lots of hours reading online police reports, searching out court records, and conducting interviews with families and victims
What were the most useful resources you turned to when doing your investigation?
- Online gun permit database (which was closed to the public in response to our story and NRA pressure)
- Online criminal court records
- Electronic permit recommendations (for or against) submitted by local police officers, sheriffs to the state police, who decided on who did or did not get permits
- Online police report database
What other advice would you offer reporters on this beat?
- Be aware that anything you do is going to be closely scrutinized and attacked, and that even the smallest, insignificant error will be used to undermine the work
- Have someone who knows guns edit or read over your story, you don’t want misidentify a rifle as a shotgun or make other assertion that can be attacked
- Sometimes it is easier and more effective to start by picking round the edges, rather than going for the whole enchilada (successes, even small, build credibility)
- Whenever possible make it about people
- Despite the potential pitfalls and headaches, don’t shy away from these important stories