A Lesson in Investigative Journalism

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I expected to come out of News 21 with a new understanding of multimedia storytelling. What I didn’t expect was a lesson in investigative journalism.

When I started this experience eight weeks ago, I was assigned a story based around a single statistic. The fact, taken from a Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) report, said that youth turnout in D.C. trumped turnout among adults ages 30 and up. This was the only state where this phenomenon occurred, the report said, making it an interesting tidbit and one worth investigating. However, the more I delved into researching the cause of this statistic, the more sources scratched their heads and our data consultant questioned the veracity of the statement.

After looking at the actual D.C. Board of Elections turnout numbers, we saw that the figures from the report were not accurate. The CIRCLE report was based on self-reported data through the Census’ November 2008 supplement, and could have been either drastically over-reported due to social pressures or with a high margin of error because of its narrow state-by-state breakdown.

In the end, the story I wrote wasn’t the story I set out to cover. And while I could be upset that an in-depth investigation led to little payoff, I learned some important lessons in reporting. Sometimes reporting the story means taking a step back from the data to see what your sources think the real story is. Even more importantly, investigative journalism is a gamble. The reward can be huge, but you’re going to suffer some losses before you hit the jackpot.

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