I spent my first day as a news editor circling a 750-acre farm in Virginia, where the body of a college student had surfaced months after she’d disappeared from a concert. There were limits to what could be learned that day: A medical examiner had not formally confirmed the identity of the body, and police had barred the farm’s entrance. So, I wandered the perimeter.
The owner of the nearest gas station told me what he knew about the farm’s owners, and about the roads surrounding their property. Residents of a neighboring subdivision described the community around the farm, and speculated about how the student’s body had arrived at a secluded part of the property. There were more details to take in—miles of fence, the pitch of the land, traffic frequency, the questions reporters asked each other. The final feature was 2,200 words long, and broke news on a prominent piece of evidence months before state police confirmed it. Had the story relied solely on news releases, press conferences, and official sources, it would’ve been half as long, and half as informative.
That experience was just the first in years’ worth of quests for access. Sometimes it came easily; on more than one occasion, a confidential source contacted me and delivered documents that were vital to a story I was working on. Other times were more challenging. I was threatened by a source during coverage of a murder investigation, and have questioned grieving families, which can be just as discomforting.
Access is the great differentiator in journalism. Sources with a story to tell are easy for reporters to find, but sources for exposés and investigations—for stories that are covered up or closely guarded—are hard to reach and often reluctant. Documents stay buried if reporters don’t learn to dig. Not all access pays off, but more access is always better than less. And each additional inch of access a reporter can eke out puts a mile between his work and others’. All reporters should have equal access to official statements and public relations boilerplate; good reporters distinguish themselves by gathering more.
Perhaps the best example of access this year comes from the New York Times.
Reporters David Barstow and Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab shared a Pulitzer Prize for an investigation that showed Wal-Mart de Mexico used bribery to build a store in a prohibited location. Their investigation involved “thousands of government documents” and “extensive interviews with participants in Wal-Mart’s investigations,” all proof of hard-won access. But the most incredible piece of evidence must have also been the most difficult to locate. Barstow and von Bertrab found evidence of an altered zoning map “on a computer disc stored in a shoe box inside the Office of Urban and Regional Planning” in Teotihuacán.
In instances where direct access is hard to obtain, the best journalists provide indirect access, and use it to navigate the space around an inaccessible source or document. When Frank Sinatra had a cold, Gay Talese famously wrote around Ol’ Blue Eyes and spoke with his posse instead. William Finnegan pulled off an impressive write-around this year, in his profile of Australian mining billionaire Gina Rinehart. “I contacted many associates, ex-associates, employees, ex-employees, politicians who publicly support her projects, even neighbors.” Plenty wouldn’t speak to him; Rinehart certainly did not. But that did not prevent Finnegan from speaking with dozens of people and filling in the space around his subject.
“As I travelled around Australia, strangers in pubs, on airplanes, in beach parking lots would bring up Gina Rinehart, not knowing I was writing about her,” wrote Finnegan. He learned plenty from them: “Everybody had something to say, some of it thoughtful, some of it poorly informed, some of it vividly obscene.”
By explaining his reporting process, Finnegan accomplished two things. First, he helped his audience better understand the mystery that was his central character. Second, he signaled his own efforts to uncover that mystery. When a gifted journalist like Finnegan details his attempts to gain access, it’s in your best interest to read carefully. The difference between good access and bad is often obvious, because the best reporters will often trace their steps for you to follow.
How can we evaluate news quality when different reporters have the same access to information, when the facts of the matter are, for all intents and purposes, identical? Journalists obtain access, but should also provide it to readers, through clear, focused writing. On July 13, as six jurors in the George Zimmerman trial deliberated the fate of the man charged with murder after shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, I ran a basic Google search for Zimmerman’s name. Then I compared three stories, all from major media outlets, focused on the jury members.
CBS News’s Crimesider blog described the jury as a “panel of six women” twice, but gave no additional information about them. An Associated Press report carried by Fox News, titled “Who are the jurors deciding George Zimmerman’s fate?” contained significantly more detail, including marital and parental status of the anonymous women. However, those details were given little priority or context, and were sometimes buried beneath irrelevant information: Juror B-29 “enjoys watching the Real Housewives on television.”
The best story of the bunch, by ABC News, gave its audience better access by emphasizing relevant facts and dodging distractions: “The fate of George Zimmerman now rests in the hands of six women, five of them mothers. … Four of the women either have experience with guns or relatives who are gun owners.” Not all details deserve equal weight. Rather than submerge central details in a sea of tangential ones, reporters Alyssa Newcomb and Stephanie Wash put their best facts forward, which helped their audience access them more swiftly. Reporters should search far and wide for the best information, but readers shouldn’t have to.
The world is governed by boundaries, both literal and figurative. Crossing them can be uncomfortable, risky, or perilous. We may not feel entitled to cross those boundaries ourselves. But we’re certainly entitled to ask journalists to walk them—so that we might better understand them, or question them, or break them down.