Ideas for projects and investigations come both from within and outside the Center for Public Integrity. Some are suggested by trends, media coverage, corporate malfeasance, or the political and international reality. Others are a result of tips, stories brought to us by whistleblowers, follow-ups on previous projects, or collaborations with other investigative groups or journalism schools. The Center’s founding vision recognizes that legal corruption is as much of a problem as illegal corruption, and our investigations into lobbying and the private interests of public officials grew from that tenet. All story ideas are evaluated by the executive director and managing editor using criteria such as journalistic merit, staffing and funding, relevance, and potential impact. After careful selection, preliminary approval is given to some of these story ideas.
The project is then assigned to a researcher or reporter for an assessment of how much information is available and what it would take to get the additional information for a go/no go decision on an investigation. At this point, there is also a discussion of the research tools that might be needed. These could involve the development of a database, purchase of specialized databases, computer assisted research, Freedom of Information Requests (FOIA), meetings with industry or government insiders, etc. The initial research may be put on hold as we await responses to FOIA requests. When preliminary research is completed, a summary document either makes the case for an investigation or kills the story.
If the executive director and managing director agree to pursue the investigation, a project scoping document is drawn up that provides a blueprint for the investigation, including a budget, staffing, distribution recommendations, web requirements, and multimedia components. It also explores issues of collaboration with other groups, as well as potential project revenue from either foundations or major donors. If there is no revenue stream for a particular project and the executive director and managing editor think it should go forward, the Center uses general support funding.
Each investigation then goes through an intensive investigative phase, followed by writing; with periodic check-ins with the managing editor; line editing; copy editing; rigorous fact-checking using the reporter’s source documents; and libel screening. Subjects of the Center’s investigations are asked for their responses to our findings. Only the executive director and the managing editor have the authority to approve an investigation for public distribution.