Bob Woodward: How To Report A Story

Bob Woodward, with Carl Bernstein, broke the story of Watergate nearly four decades ago. He still works as a journalist for the Washington Post. Interviewed for the Post‘s website, he talked about basic journalistic skills:

One of the questions which persists in journalism is where do we get our information? And there are actually three tracks which, I think, apply to any story.

The first, obviously, is people, and that doesn’t mean just going to one person or one source; it means checking everything, talking to half a dozen or even a dozen people for a day. If it’s something longer you want to totally surround and saturate the subject. Second track is documents. I have not really ever seen a story in a newspaper or on TV or even on radio that couldn’t be enhanced with some kind of documentation which would support or add more detail to what the story is about. And the third track – often if you ask people what’s the third they don’t get it, and I would tell an anecdote from my early reporting career to illustrate the importance of the third track:

In the first months I started working at the Washington Post in 1971, I had developed a source in the local District of Columbia Health Department and they were doing inspections of restaurants, many of the famous restaurants in Washington, and closing them down for sanitation violations; so we were doing front-page stories on this. And one day the source called me up and said we have the worst score that any restaurant in the District of Columbia has ever received and I won’t go through the gross details of what was floating in the food.
So I went and got the document – at a newspaper even then they liked to get early copy, so I wrote out the story about lunch time, maybe even before lunch. The story said that the document made it clear that the Mayflower coffee shop, as it was called, was the restaurant which had been closed down with the score of less than 50 points. I wrote up the story based on the document about the coffee shop at the Mayflower hotel, one of the famous restaurants in Washington, and handed it to the city editor. I said ‘Here’s early copy’ and he was delighted and he said ‘Wow, this is a front-page story, that’s an awful series of violations’, and then he said ‘Have you been there?’ And I said ‘No, I’ve got the document, I know it is authentic.’ And he said ‘Well, it’s two blocks away, get your ass out of the chair and get over there.’
So I went to the Mayflower hotel and I asked to visit the coffee shop. Everyone there said we don’t have a coffee shop. We have a famous Jean Louis or something restaurant, we have the buffet, but no coffee shops. So I looked at the address of the Mayflower coffee shop and it turned out not to be in the Mayflower hotel but in the Statler Hilton hotel which was a half a block away from the Washington Post. So I went over there and found the Mayflower coffee shop and they had a big sign saying closed for repairs. The man who ran the restaurant happily but reluctantly acknowledged that they had been closed down for all of these violations. I went back to the Post and asked the editor for the copy back. I said I had a few minor changes to make. And if we had run this story without me getting my ass out of the chair and going to the scene, we probably would have had to run a front-page correction.

Is investigative journalism alive in the USA?

I think that there will always be investigative or in-depth reporting. Clearly the newspapers are going through a convulsion now. It may last a long time, but young people are going to develop new business models. Everyone, all age groups, realises that it is important to have good data, good information about what government does. I asked Ben Bradlee, who was the editor of thePost, what he thought and he said ‘Look, it’s going to change.’ But then with great passion he said that there will always be a group of people, a band of brothers and sisters working to get to the under-layer of what’s going on, and they will find a way to publish or broadcast what they believe the truth to be.

Bob Woodward has worked for the Washington Post since 1971 as a reporter, and is currently an associate editor. As a young reporter in 1972, Woodward was teamed with Carl Bernstein: the two did much of the original news reporting on the Watergate scandal which led to numerous government investigations and the eventual resignation of President Richard Nixon on 9 August 1974.

This is an edited version of a chapter in the forthcoming book Investigative Journalism: Dead or Alive?, edited by John Mair and Richard Lance Keeble and published by Abramis. It is used with the kind permission of the editors.


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