Five Questions for Julian Sher
With this weekend’s cross-border investigative journalism conference fast approaching, J-Source sat down with speaker and Globe and Mail investigative guru Julian Sher to get some early tips. Sher dishes on scene-grabbing, brainstorming ideas, and finding hidden gems.
J-Source: You’ve written about subjects as diverse as child prostitution, online predators and Steven Truscott’s murder trial, and directed documentaries about propaganda in World War II, nuclear jihad and the Taliban. How do you come up with these ideas and then research them so extensively?
JS: I think investigative journalism is not about the brown envelope; it’s about looking under rocks for the dark stories that nobody wants told. It’s also about addressing scandals and problems and issues that are staring us in the face, but no one wants to look at it. So it means that your research has to be painstaking, because you are dealing with topics that make people uncomfortable or that people don’t want to talk about. So it takes a tremendous amount of time. It takes about two years [to write a book] and an investigative documentary can take me half a year. A book or a documentary is not just a longer newspaper article. It’s an entirely different animal.
J-Source: The prologue to your most recent book Somebody’s Daughter starts off with a very vivid scene. How do you get stories like that?
JS: You have to gain the confidence of law enforcement and community groups, and then eventually the young girls. I don’t think I could’ve done that without my previous book that I did on child predators, which gave me credibility with the FBI, with the department of justice but also with community groups and child caregivers, so they see that you understand the problem and they see that you’re a caring journalist and they see that you get it. But even then, it took months and months to meet the people who could tell you those stories…then go back to them for more details about when and where it happened. The police will actually remember what a young girl was wearing or what the weather was like when she gets arrested in Las Vegas, looking at court records, so it’s that whole combination. In Maria’s case, I interview her, so I go to her house, I go to the boardwalk in Atlantic City where she started getting involved in prostitution, I walk through the same casinos in Las Vegas and the same place where she gets arrested…I ended up finding cops who’d interviewed her. So you start to recreate, but not in a fictional way [chuckles], you recreate because you’re coming at it from so many different perspectives and so many different eyes.
J-Source: Most journalists tend to stick to one medium. Why do you choose to work in print and TV doc?
JS: I’m always willing to explore new ways of telling stories, and certain stories lend themselves to certain mediums. Showing the gun stash of the Taliban who are fighting the Canadians works pretty well in television, but at the same time, unraveling the injustices that were done to Steven Truscott takes a whole book, and talking about Canada’s poor performance when it comes to fighting money laundering and bribery can work pretty well in newspaper. I think you tailor your medium to the story that you want to tell.
J-Source: You created the site JournalismNet. Why should journalists use it as a resource? (Sher sold the site last year.)
JS: That was created in ancient, historic times by Internet standards, 1997, when most journalists were either ignorant or afraid of using it, and I was able to make the constructions way back then. Now, I still do a lot of training across the country. The different problem now, I think, is that the Internet has made many journalists either lazy or stupid. There are a lot of hidden gems that journalists don’t know about and landmines, booby traps. The specialized skill now is to get the most out of it. That’s part of the training that I do.
J-Source: At the upcoming Crossing the 49th conference, you’ll be discussing investigative interviewing. Can you share one of your tips with J-Source readers?
JS: Right up there with writing, interviewing is one of the basic skills journalists have to master, and yet we pay even less attention to it than writing. Journalists just assume that we’re all good interviewers because we make up a list of questions and fire them at the person we’re interviewing. It’s frightening how effectively we shoot ourselves in our collective feet when it comes to getting people to tell us their stories. I go through six basic rules, but the main lesson is that interviewing has to be a very conscious, planned battle where you have a clear focus…Good interviews, like good stories, have to have a beginning, a middle and an end. They have to have a climax. They have to be carefully crafted to not shut down your subject, but to bring the most out of them.
Julian Sher is an investigative journalist at The Globe and Mail, a veteran TV documentary director and the author of several books. He teaches in newsrooms about how to use the Internet as an investigative tool.