Q&A: Accountability reporting during a pandemic

Last Thursday, ProPublica and the Center for Responsive Politics published stories about Richard Burr, a US senator from North Carolina, unloading hundreds of thousands—possibly millions—of dollars in stocks days after publicly reassuring constituents that the US was well prepared to handle the coronavirus. Later that day, the Daily Beast published a similar scoop about Kelly Loeffler, a US senator from Georgia, who had sold a considerable number of stock holdings and invested in teleworking technology after attending a health intelligence briefing on covid-19. Amid a frenetic news cycle, where every story is subsumed under the pandemic, these outlets published critical accountability stories on powerful political figures that rose, if briefly, to the forefront. 

CJR spoke with both Robert Faturechi, one of the ProPublica reporters who broke the story about Senator Burr, and Lachlan Markay, one of the Daily Beast reporters who broke the Loeffler story. In separate interviews, Faturechi and Markay both talked about how they’ve customized the coronavirus beat to fit their expertise, and how to report big stories from the kitchen table. The two conversations have been combined and edited for clarity.

 

It sounds weird to say I’m spending hours and hours looking through this stuff and very often not finding anything. But it’s when you do find that really good bit of information that makes it all worth it.

 

CJR: The coronavirus pandemic is an “everything” story, especially in journalism—it affects both the reporting process and what’s reported on. How has this changed your work?

Robert Faturechi: My plan for the year was to cover congressional corruption—to look at incumbents and challengers in both the House and Senate, looking for accountability stories. Now we’re in the crisis that we’re in, and the direction from up top—which I agree with—was that it was time for all hands to be on deck, that this could potentially be one of the defining moments and news events of our lifetimes. So I’ve been reporting out all sorts of corruption and coronavirus threads, including the US Navy’s response. Then I did this story about Senator Burr and sort of accidentally combined coronavirus coverage and congressional corruption. 

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For ProPublica, I think there’s a strength in having a newsroom where there are people who specialize in a lot of different beats and have different experience. I’m biased, but I genuinely believe our health reporters are better than any other health team in the country—but they don’t have as much experience in looking at these financial disclosure forms as I do. So if the coronavirus coverage was limited solely to reporters who specialize in healthcare coverage, I’m not sure they would have been able to see what was unusual about this financial disclosure form as quickly, the same way I wouldn’t be able to have a chance at reporting the incredible stories they’re reporting. We’re all bringing our strengths. We’re all bringing our past experience. And we’re using it to cover this crisis in a multifaceted and aggressive way.

Lachlan Markay: Over the past week or so, we’ve seen the president, a lot of his supporters, and even some of his detractors refer to him as a “wartime president.” That was revelatory for me, because there are a lot of unique circumstances in wartime. In many cases, times of conflict lend themselves to investigative reporting. One angle is to consider who is getting rich off of the suffering. That’s the approach I’m going to be taking, going forward—in many ways, you’re reporting on a war effort and all the things that that entails.

When OpenSecrets and ProPublica published the piece on Burr, I was immediately kicking myself for not having thought to look that up, because it was information that was just sitting there. So I immediately went and started looking through the other recent Senate financial disclosures—and Loeffler popped up.

 

CJR: Is everyone in your newsroom working remotely now?

LM: Yeah, I’ve been out of the office for about ten or eleven days.

It’s a different dynamic to be sitting at home rather than sitting in an office. Especially because the Daily Beast office is very small and open, so everyone is always bouncing ideas off of each other. That’s definitely something I miss; it’s helpful in my work. But the public-records aspect of my reporting is something that I could do from anywhere with internet connection. 

RF: I work remotely anyway, in Los Angeles. But everyone else is working from home now. And I’ve got a small child, so that added a new layer of complication—his daycare is closed. You know, everyone’s just figuring it out. I’ve got a space in our house that is solely used as my office. And I think that’s sort of key to staying sane.

What really works for me is partnering remotely with other reporters in the main newsroom. You’re constantly keeping in touch, you’re constantly on Slack with each other, you’re constantly on the phone, and it makes you feel more plugged in. Working in teams—what’s the saying? “We move slower together, but also farther together”? Whatever that saying is, it’s definitely true, right? 

 

CJR: Right now there are all these reporters trying to figure out how to tell good and important stories from home. This is one very important story where the information is already out there.

RF: Yeah. These disclosure forms are not updated as regularly as I’d like as a reporter. But senators are required by law to disclose these kinds of securities transactions.

LM: I do a lot of work with public records. And so this is the central challenge of my job, day to day. I have databases and websites that I check first thing every day. Things like SEC filings, FCC filings for broadcast ads, foreign agent filings, lobbying disclosures—just to see if anything new and interesting has popped up there. These days, everything is coronavirus—so seeing if anyone’s running ads on Facebook or on TV mentioning coronavirus.

It just so happens that with these two instances—with Burr and Loeffler—there was that other crucial bit of information. NPR’s recording was a concrete piece of evidence showing what Senator Burr knew and when, which could then be cross-referenced with financial disclosure reports. With the Loeffler example, there was a comparable piece that we can place on the timeline—this all-senator briefing that she attended. Very often, the public-records part of it is only part of the story.

 

CJR: How much time do you spend looking through databases and finding nothing? 

LM: Ninety-eight percent of the time, I’m not finding anything at all. But the dopamine hit that I get from spotting that little bit of information that I immediately recognize as newsworthy—that’s my fix. That’s what I love doing. It sounds weird to say I’m spending hours and hours looking through this stuff and very often not finding anything. But it’s when you do find that really good bit of information that makes it all worth it.

 

CJR: It seems like an exercise in patience.

LM: Patience, yes, and also the ability to scan past a lot of information and to be able to recognize when you come across something that’s potentially interesting. That’s the situation you want to be in—knowing these organizations and individuals and political candidates well enough, and knowing what their finances look like well enough that if there is some interesting or newsworthy bit of information, you immediately notice it.

RF: I guess I don’t think you should be too patient. I think being hard on yourself when you’re looking for a story and not finding one is not the most joyous thing, but I actually think it’s sort of a productive impulse, because it forces you to keep seeking, desperately. And if you don’t have that fear and hunger and anxiety about it, you might become complacent. 

 

CJR: When you wake up and look through all these public records, what does that look like? What are you looking for? 

LM: More often than not, it’s going into it and not really looking for anything in particular, just seeing if anything pops out—if there’s an organization you’ve never heard of that’s spending a lot of money on ads, or if there’s some big donor that pops up, or some new Chinese company that has registered with a major DC lobbying firm. I’m plumbing those same databases if I’m looking for something specific, but that beginning-of-the-day routine is much more just to get an understanding of what new information is there. 

RF: One time, I tried to map out every way that I had found the dozen or so stories that I was most proud of. I created a bar chart for how I had reported the stories. And it was totally even: human sources, foias, reviewing various types of publicly available disclosure forms. An even distribution of success. It gave me no guidance. What I took away from that is just that it’s different every time and you have to keep working at it. Eventually, you’ll make your own luck.

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Lauren Harris is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites

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