Digging deep to follow the money

Start with a solid hypothesis to show how campaign donations and lobbying expenditures influence public policy.

Aspiring science writers often ask me what it takes to be a good journalist, and I invariably answer with some version of “an innate curiosity that borders on pathological and a slightly obsessive need to know what’s going on.”

Of course it doesn’t help to be insatiably curious if you don’t know how to find things no one else has reported. There’s basic reporting, where facts are relatively easy to unearth if you know where to look, and then there’s investigative reporting, where you’re uncovering something that powerful interests want to keep hidden. With investigative reporting, digging deep is key. But deep dives take time, so it’s especially important to stay focused–particularly if you’re a freelancer, since you’re not getting paid as you analyze mountains of material.

A few years ago, I got interested in flame retardants—chemicals used in a wide array of foam consumer products from nursing pillows to couches to slow the spread of fire—when I heard activists claiming that California legislators couldn’t pass bills to regulate the chemicals because industry spent millions to defeat them.

Yet I never saw a reporter document their claims. So I started digging and came up with a classic follow-the-money story for Environmental Health News, documenting a $23 million chemical industry lobbying campaign that blocked every legislative attempt to restrict toxic flame retardants in California.

As I recently noted for Reporting on Health, the $4.6 billion flame retardant industry—projected to reach $6 billion by 2018—had a strong incentive to wage an undercover lobbying effort to protect its products, which government scientists have linked to a wide range of neurodevelopmental and reproductive problems.

It’s the job of every investigative reporter to uncover what powerful interests want to hide. Here are a few quick tips to get you started on your own investigation.

Do some preliminary research.

Do enough research before diving into databases, public records requests, documents, and other resources to make sure you’re on the right track. Be prepared to switch gears if you find evidence that challenges your assumptions. I’d done enough research to confirm that an infusion of chemical industry cash was indeed at play. Then I started tracking who spent the money, who received it, how much was spent, and when.

Focus your investigation.

Though plenty of interesting tangents cropped up during my research, I reminded myself to stick to my central question: given mounting evidence that flame retardants pose a risk to health and the environment, why does the state of California still allow manufacturers to use them to meet its flammability standard when they don’t even work as advertised?

Look for patterns.

Tracking the flow of money around multiple bills and election cycles involving more than 100 legislators and close to 50 lobbyists, trade groups, and chemical companies generated a daunting amount of material.

It’s nearly impossible to show a quid pro quo, where the day before a key vote Senator Claghorn receives $3,000 from Acme Chemical Company and then votes to support his benefactor the next day. But you can look for patterns. I showed that money buys access to policymakers—in the form of private dinners, banquets, receptions, seminars, and other informal events—and revealed a pattern of giving that increased during critical periods when legislators considered and then killed five flame retardant bills.

Be decisive.

Make sure you figure out who the major actors are before you collect your data. When you’re dealing with big datasets with hundreds of rows of donations per spreadsheet, the last thing you want to do is change your parameters midstream. Though it might be tempting to cast a wide net and include every company that’s ever produced flame retardants, it’s best to be conservative so you can defend your conclusions. Chevron and other petrochemical giants make flame retardants, but the chemicals represent just a fraction of their product line. Counting campaign contributions from all the petrochemical companies to 100-plus legislators added three-quarters of a million to the industry campaign. But Chevron didn’t list flame retardants on its lobbying disclosure forms, so I didn’t include the donations. It’s entirely plausible that an industry rep talked about flame retardants at a reception on, say, clean air. But activists’ claims that industry spent millions on lobbying to defeat the legislation was plausible too. You have to document it.

Investigative reporting is a powerful tool that relies on another trait found in any good journalist—skepticism. I don’t take what anyone, activist or politician, tells me at face value. There are no shortcuts. But when you finally have the facts nailed down to the point where you can show who’s benefiting and who’s not, that’s when you know you hit paydirt. And it’s time to set your curiosity loose on the next story.

Photo by Stuart Miles, www.freedigitalphotos.net