How Investigative Reporters and Editors shaped my first investigative story

How Investigative Reporters and Editors shaped my first investigative story

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Investigative Reporters and Editors is in the middle of a fundraising campaign. If you care about watchdog journalism, you might want to think about helping the cause.

I first heard about IRE from Ken Dilanian, who was an investigative reporter for the San Antonio Express-News in the mid-1990s. I was a skinny dude with a flat top attending Incarnate Word College and writing for the student newspaper, the Logos. Ken suggested I read a book published by IRE called, “The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook.”

I bought the handbook during Christmas break and devoured it. The book preached the value of tracking down key records to verify what people tell you, and to learn information that officials don’t want you to know. There’s a wide, wide world of public information out there, if you just know where to look. The book showed you how.

I read the handbook just in time. In the Spring semester at Incarnate Word, I friend told me about problems at the school’s science hall. She said the school was doing a terrible job storing dangerous chemicals — even the San Antonio bomb squad had been called to dispose of potentially explosive substances.

If I hadn’t read IRE’s handbook, I probably would have called the dean, been told nothing was wrong, and walked away clueless about what was really going on.

But thanks to IRE, I thought about which government agencies might have information that could confirm the tip. I tracked down public records, such as police reports, and talked to key officials, such as fire marshals, and confirmed the story. By the time I talked to the dean, I already knew what was going on. It was liberating.

Here’s part of my story in the Logos, published on April 4, 1996:

Sloppy storage practices have plagued the science department for as long as employees remember — and the problem could be deadly.

Last semester Incarnate Word called in chemical disposal specialists from Emtech Environmental Service after old acid was found that could have exploded had it been disturbed.

Bernard Zarazua, laboratory director at the time, was cleaning a lab that hadn’t been used in over six months when he discovered crystallized picric acid in a 25-gram container.

Stable in liquid form, picric acid solidifies over time, turning combustible and sensitive to vibration.

“We had [Emtech] come out and dispose of it,” Zarazua says. “They did it at six in the morning so no one would be alarmed.”

IRE is a nonprofit group that has taught countless students, bloggers and reporters better ways to practice the craft of watchdog journalism. That’s worth a few bucks.