How to Write a (Really Exhaustive) Investigative Story
Investigative reporter Matt Drange did nearly 300 interviews, unearthed secret documents and followed his gut while writing a series that’s changing the way the country views high school sexual abuse.
I recently guest edited an issue of the The Sunday Long Read newsletter and received a tip alerting me to Matt Drange’s latest investigative story for Business Insider. It was immediately intriguing: a deep dive into four decades of sexual abuse and misconduct at his alma mater, Rosemead High School, in Southern California. I soon learned that what I had read was Part 2 of a three-part series. The first part is the definitive story of one predator, Drange’s former journalism teacher at Rosemead; the second, a larger story uncovering years of abuse at his school and in his district; and the third, to be published in December, a spotlight on this issue across the entire nation.
Reading the first two stories, it was evident what a thorough and judicious job Drange had done, but also just how much reporting had gone into these pieces. He conducted hundreds of first-person interviews and combed through countless documents, records, emails, texts, and social media messages. How did he do it all? Rather than wonder alone in my office, I asked Matt if he would chat with me about his process, and he was kind enough to agree.
Jesse: Let’s start at the beginning. The first part of your series focuses on your former journalism teacher, Eric Burgess, but then the second is about so many teachers and officials at your alma mater and the surrounding district, how they’ve been abusive and corrupt for years. What did you think this story was when you first started looking into it? How and when did that shift?
Matt: When I set out to report the Burgess story, which was way back in 2017, so six years ago now, I did not think it was going to be about one teacher. I had just read a story by a friend of mine, a reporter at The Oregonian, called “Benefit of the Doubt.” It was about this P.E. teacher, and as the title suggests, he just kept getting the benefit of the doubt again and again and again when it came to allegations of inappropriate behavior with students. This was summer 2017, near the height of the #MeToo movement exploding onto the national conscience, and I read that and I just thought, “I feel like there’s got to be someone like that at my high school, too.”
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