by J.P. Lawrence
Think “investigative” was the mission that award-winning reporter Chris Halsne gave to veterans and troops working or interested in journalism.
Halsne, a professor at American University, provided the advice in a webinar in the final hour of the Military Veterans in Journalism’s inaugural convention on Oct. 21.
The investigative journalist spoke to attendees about how to acquire government-held public records, the kind of evidence that is the bread and butter of investigative journalism.
“In 30-plus years running broadcast investigative news,” Halsne said, “I can’t think of many blockbuster, award-winning stories that changed laws and how the community saw certain things that didn’t start with a good public records request.”
Conducting investigations is different from reporting breaking news, said Halsne, who managed special-projects units in Seattle, Denver, and Oklahoma City and has won three National Press Club awards.
If there were to be a disaster, a breaking news reporter would report on the events of the day, but investigative reports get to take a step back and take a look at the larger picture and take accountability for who was at fault. “Were there any warning signs to prevent what happened?” Halsne said.
Halsne shared the results of his investigation on how bullet-proof vests worn by police failed to protect their wearers. During three decades in television, he also completed investigations across different subjects such as the collateral damage of a government program to poison booby traps to kill coyotes, and the dark side of sports.
“Investigative reporters are vacuum cleaners,” Halsne said. “You gather what’s there; nine times out of ten, it’s nothing. The one time it is, you dig your teeth into it.”
Attendees of the online webinar included veterans and servicemembers at various levels of experience in journalism. Allison Erickson, a writer and a former Army officer, said she joined the webinar for industry insight on how investigative reporters are used in the newsroom.
“When do you run or request reports? Is it clockwork?” were questions she said she was interested in.
Halsne said he regularly requests information from the various levels of government and has probably filed about 10,000 queries. He also shared his tips about the correct time to speak to an organization about an investigation that’s being done on them, how to handle hostile public information officers, and how to structure Freedom of Information Act requests.
“It’s super helpful to better understand the processes for records requests,” said Dan Lyons, a photo editor at Chalkbeat, a nonprofit newsroom that focuses on education. He said he also thought it was helpful to learn tips like using official letterheads for FOIA requests to give them more legitimacy.
The webinar capped off the inaugural MVJ convention. The two-day event included videos and panels by Jake Tapper and Brianna Marie Keilar from CNN, Kelly Kennedy from the War Horse, Xanthe Scharff from the Fuller Project, and Paul Szoldra from Task and Purpose.