The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across the keyboard.

The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across a keyboard

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Investigative Reporting: Information for Writers with Rob Peecher

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I'd like to introduce you to Robert Peecher.

Robert Peecher has been in the newspaper industry for 20 years as a reporter, editor and publisher. He has reported on everything from murders and trials to spaceship cults to corruption at City Hall. He currently is Editor & Publisher of The Oconee Leader newspaper in Watkinsville, Georgia. He is also the author of the Jackson Speed Memoirs, historical fiction novels about a cowardly rascal fleeing his way through 19th Century America. He also writes the Moses Calhoun Potboilers, a series of short stories about a hardboiled sheriff’s investigator
fighting bumbling meth-heads and other assorted troublemakers.

Fiona -
Hey Rob, thanks for stopping by. Tell us a little bit about where you work.

Rob - 
Most all of the work I’ve done has been in communities with a population under 50,000, so I’ve worked for a lot of rural and small-market newspapers. I have, however, covered stories that had national and even international appeal. 

I covered a cult for several years in Putnam County, Georgia, where the leader eventually went to federal prison for molesting children. I appeared on The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News to talk specifically about Jesse Jackson’s and Al Sharpton’s involvement with the cult group (which was predominately African-American). At times when I was covering the cult, I stood at press conferences with German and Japanese television reporters – this in a county of 20,000 people that didn’t even have a Walmart.

Fiona - 
That must have been an awesome experience. 

I'm writing a crime reporter into my scene, and it occurs to me that journalism isn't a one size fits all.

Can you tell us how investigatory reporters differs from being a crime reporter?

Rob -
Being a crime reporter generally is very reactionary – you show up after it’s all over and report on what other people do. Being an investigative reporter, though, allows you to dig into a story and break news.

I’ve also spent a lot of time reporting on crimes and covering trials. I’ve ridden with sheriff’s deputies to crime scenes or followed them to crime scene,s and I’ve followed many crimes (murders especially) from incident to trial.

Fiona - 
Can you tell us about one of your investigatory cases?

Rob - 
I spent several months investigating corruption in a rural town. It was one of those things that everyone knew it was going on, but nobody did anything about it. 

After getting an anonymous tip (from someone I knew) I started investigating thefts. Through the work I did, I forced the city auditor to do a thorough audit (which he’d never done before) and forced the District Attorney to go after the officials who were stealing money (the DA, who was on friendly terms with me, freely admitted that I forced him to do something he didn’t want to get involved in). I’m the only reporter I know who can truthfully say I sent people to prison based on my reporting.

Fiona - 
What are some ways that a reporter's interest might be perked? How do you come upon a story?

Rob - 
A lot of times, especially with an investigative type story where the reporter is looking for somebody doing something wrong, the story starts with a phone call or an anonymous tip.

I always think of "Deep Throat" in the parking garage. It's not usually that cloak and dagger, but it does start with someone who has information and wants that information to be made public.

Fiona - 
And why would you trust an anonymous tip? What would turn up your radar and make you say, "this is going to be a good story"?

Rob - 
You never trust an anonymous tip. You always check into it and follow the trail of information. But if the person is in a position to have information or can articulate why they are coming to the media as opposed to the police, those are reasons to at least be willing to follow the trail. You use a little of your own knowledge and experience, also.

Does the story the person is giving make sense? Is it plausible? And if so, if all of it passes the "gut feeling" then you follow it. Sometimes you'll talk to an editor or fellow reporters and get their feelings.

Fiona - 
Why would someone go to the media and not the police?

Rob - 
Good question.

Sometimes the person may not trust the police. Corruption among government officials is never particularly far from the police.

An example: Once a person called me with information about the mayor stealing money from the city. This was a small town. The police chief was his brother. It made sense that he wouldn't go to the police.

Sometimes, too, a person might feel that exposing corruption through the media will force law enforcement to get involved where maybe they wouldn't before. I've seen that, too.

Step one - find a bread crumb.

Fiona - 
Can you tell me some processes that you might go through to see if there's a crime trail? Maybe take us through an example?

Rob - 
The biggest story of corruption I ever worked started with an "anonymous" tip. I knew the person calling, knew they were in a position to know what they were talking about. It was theft of government money on a pretty wide scale.

I relied heavily on the open records act for that story. Most all states (maybe all states) will have an open records act that allows you to get access to public documents. With that story, I knew a little of what I was looking for. I asked to see things like canceled checks for a year.

They may not like it, but they have to give you the records. I spent hours and hours going through records like that.

And once you start to find what you're looking for, then you just follow those leads.

Fiona - 
That seems a little bit like a mouse maze.

Lots of false starts

dead ends

Rob -
A lot of times you check with other sources, other people who may know. Most of the time what you get are "no comments", but in putting together a story those are sometimes as good as a comment.


Yes - a lot of false starts and dead ends, and I've had to give up stories just because I couldn't find proof.

Fiona - 
That must feel frustrating

Rob - 
Reporters generally have a quota of stories they've got to produce, so big long investigative pieces, especially at a small paper, aren't in the budget. Editors want results quickly, or it's time to move on.

It gets frustrating sometimes. Good stories, if I think there's something there, I'll work those in the middle of the night.

Fiona - 
That's dedication.

When you're reading books or watching movies that have an investigative reported in a pivotal role, what mistakes do you see the writers make in depicting the job?

Rob - 
In general, I'd say the ones I can think of are mostly accurate. Deadlines are a hassle. There is a lot of pressure in the job. Every story you write has to be accurate or it gets you sued. It's a high stress job.

"The Paper" with Michael Keaton - that was a pretty realistic movie in terms of how things work at a newspaper. I've never had anyone fire a gun in a newsroom before, but I've seen people throw chairs across the room. So in terms of getting it right, I think that one mostly did.

Fiona - 
So what kind of personality gravitates to that career choice?

Rob - 
When it comes to investigative reporters, specifically, I think you have people who have a pretty high sense of justice, people who want to have an impact on the world but people who might not have a lot of respect for authority and therefore don't want to be police or military (if that makes sense). A lot of people in the business, though, end up here simply because they like to write.

Fiona - 
Let's talk about stakes.

How dangerous to you - and those you love - can this particular job get?

Rob - 
It can get very dangerous. I've been threatened many times. At one time it was bad enough that I stopped taking my children with me in public.

But those stories are probably rare. Most of the reporters I know have never had a serious threat.

I think I just have a way of really pissing people off.

Fiona - 
Ha!

Rob - 
... Asking about loved ones, I remember one night practicing with my wife what we would do if someone tried to come into our house to kill us.

She wasn't thrilled with that.

Fiona - 
Yeah, I can imagine that going down very badly. It's a very personal question I know so feel free to say pass - but what is your emotional reaction to a threat? And my follow up - when threatened what kinds of precautions/actions do reporters and their employers take?

Rob - 
It depends on the threat and who is making it, but I've been very scared before. Your employer probably won't be much help. I did have an editor who offered to let me borrow his gun and even offered to come watch my house at night, but I didn't take him up. I carry a gun also.

Fiona - 

A ThrillWriting traditional question is - What is the story behind your favorite scar - and barring a scar could you tell us a harrowing story that you survived?

Rob - 
My favorite scar is actually not my scar, it's my youngest son's scar. He was 12-years-old and had gone to a birthday party. It was his first boy-girl party.

All the kids were running through the woods, and he tripped and fell on a rock - landed right on his knee.

It tore meat and skin away from his knee and was a terrible thing. I took him to the emergency room and they cleaned it and repaired it as best they could, but he has an enormous scar on his knee cap.

I told him, "This is what happens when you go to parties with girls."

Fiona - 
Or you don't chase the girls - you need to sit back and let them chase you.

Rob - 
That's right!

Fiona - 
Well, that was pretty gross with the meat and stuff - LOL

Rob - 
Yes, it was. Which is why his mom made me take him to the emergency room.

Fiona - 
So she's wimpy around wounds and gets upset around the idea of defending life and limb from would-be attackers. I think this is the part where you had better say something very wonderful about her - I understand couch sleeping is not comfy.

Rob - 
Haha! Actually, she was very good about defending life and limb. I've always figured most women would have gone to stay with their parents when it came time to work out a plan for what to do if someone broke into the house to kill us. She was wonderful about standing with me because she believed in what I was doing, and I've always been grateful for that.

Fiona - Oh that is wonderful - kudos to her!




Does your investigative reporting show up in your novels or do you write about something completely different to give your brain a vacation?

Rob - 
Some of the stuff I write is very loosely based on some of the crimes I've covered.


I have tried to write about investigative reporters before, but it's never really worked out. 
But the Moses Calhoun stories sometimes follow or were inspired by actual crimes I've covered.

Fiona - 
Amazon Link
Can you tell me about your novels?

Rob - 
I write in two series: The Jackson Speed Memoirs and the Moses Calhoun stories.

Moses Calhoun is a modern-era, hardboiled sheriff's detective. He deals with a lot of bumbling, dumb criminals. Meth heads and what not.

The Jackson Speed novels are set during
Amazon Link


the 1800s (Mexican- 
American War, Civil War, Wild West). Speedy is a womanizer, a coward, a real unsavory guy. I put him in actual events and then watch him flee his way out of them. I'm currently writing about Jackson Speed at Gettysburg.

Those novels are a lot of fun to write, and I think they're fun to read, as well.

One of the photos I sent you is of me at Gettysburg doing some hands-on research.

Rob Peecher at Gettysburg
Fiona - 
We are at the very end of our time together. What do you wish I had asked you? Is there something I didn't know enough to ask that you think is an important point?
Rob -
The one thing I would say to writers who want to write it right about investigative journalists is that these are going to be normal people with normal lives and concerns (got to take the kids to daycare and pay the mortgage).

However, most of them are also going to be married to their jobs.
They take what they do very seriously, and they work late and skip meals if they're on a good story.

And they stick with the stories, even when people are threatening them.
Add caption


Fiona - 
Is this you getting pepper sprayed?

Rob - 
Yes, this is a picture of of me getting pepper sprayed with some of the sheriff's deputies ... I did that for a story, but also because when you're a crime reporter and need deputies to talk to you, it's better if they feel comfortable.

Doing things like getting pepper sprayed with them makes for some fun bonding.

Or, sometimes not fun.

Fiona - 
Thanks on much for coming on and sharing your expertise, Rob.

And thank you fellow readers/writers. If you have a question or want to leave a comment please do so below. I moderate for SPAM so it will NOT show up right away, Also, if you like my blog, please share with your friends. There are some handy buttons below. Happy plotting.

Cheers,
Fiona

If you want to get in touch with Rob here are his links: 

BLOG

Link to the Jackson Speed Memoirs on Amazon

Link to the Moses Calhoun Potboilers on Amazon

Amazon Author page

Twitter



Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.


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