The Seattle Times’ investigative team works on behalf of the public to hold the powerful to account and expose injustices. Investigative reporting is time-consuming and can be wonky, involving documents, data and fact-checking, but readers only see the finished product.
We want to pull back the curtain on the work that goes into our stories, so we asked readers what they wanted to know. More than 60 submitted questions about our reporting processes and ethical policies.
We’ve answered a selection of the most popular questions below. To submit a question, click here or scroll to the bottom of this page.
Read more about our mission, meet individual team members, send us a tip or donate to the Investigative Journalism Fund. If you don’t already subscribe to The Seattle Times, please consider doing so here.
Jump to a question:
- What distinguishes investigative journalism from The Seattle Times’ other work?
- How do your journalists find stories?
- How do readers make suggestions for investigations?
- How does your team prioritize which topics to investigate?
- How do you work to be fair and unbiased?
- Does the editorial board influence what you investigate?
- When you’re trying to track down the truth or falsity of something, how do you verify information and know your story is solid?
- When do you use anonymous sources and how do you vet their accounts?
- How does your mostly white investigative team authentically report on issues impacting communities of color?
- How can people support this journalism?
What distinguishes investigative journalism from The Seattle Times’ other work?
The Times’ investigative team has a unique mission in the newsroom, to push past the news of the day and look deeply at how money, power and influence affect our daily lives. That’s not to say we skip past the news cycle: Good investigative stories are often rooted in hot public conversations. For example, during the 2020 protests against police misconduct, we started digging into Washington’s process for pulling the badges and guns of troubled officers, and found gaping holes.
And good investigative reporters try to zig where others zag, to expose abuses that would remain hidden if not for deep reporting — such as our investigation of business practices and patient-safety concerns at the acclaimed Swedish Neuroscience Institute.
Investigative stories tend to take a long time — weeks, months or even a year or more. So we put a lot of thought into answering fundamental questions before launching an investigation. What is the actual harm being inflicted? How can we quantify that harm, via data, documents or human sources? What potential could the story have to rectify or prevent harm in the future? What are the potential maximum and minimum stories this reporting could yield, and are they worth the investment of time? And, lastly, will Seattle Times readers find value and engage with the story? When we can answer those, we start digging.
— Jonathan Martin, investigations editor
How do your journalists find stories?
Investigative reporting is supposed to tell us why something happened — the unvarnished “why,” which often exposes injustices, systemic problems or unscrupulous acts by people in powerful positions. Often, it’s the daily reporting our colleagues doggedly pursue that illuminates a situation our readers deserve to know more about. Our stories can spring from the daily news.
At least as frequently, tips from readers will spur us to do a story. After all, tipsters in the community have direct knowledge of situations and are the best eyes and ears we could hope for. Our investigative team constantly requests public documents and data sets from governments at all levels, uncovering facts that set stories in motion.
A great deal of care goes into selecting the stories we commit our time, energy and resources to. Deciding to pursue a story is not a choice we take lightly. It involves a great deal of discussion between our editors and reporters about the value to society of a particular story.
— Patrick Malone, investigative reporter
How do readers make suggestions for investigations?
We value tips from our readers and they often lead us to story ideas. Readers can contact individual team members or email the Times Watchdog team at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want more secure options to protect your identity, we also accept tips via U.S. mail or secure encrypted email, text or phone call. Read more about secure options for tips here.
We read every tip we receive, but a few things make tips especially useful to us. We look for problems that have real-world consequences — tell us who is being harmed and what’s happening. The best tips are clear, specific and involve systems that affect multiple people, not just an individual.
Documents or concrete evidence are extremely helpful to us. If you have reports, emails, text messages, photos or other documents relating to your tip, please let us know or include them when you reach out.
— Taylor Blatchford, engagement editor
How does your team prioritize which topics to investigate?
We look for stories that can hold the powerful accountable. It might be the leader of a large company, or a prominent politician. Sometimes it’s an obscure government agency that holds sway over people’s lives. We love to expose secrets, especially if they’re inside public agencies, which after all, belong to the public. Stories that impact our readers directly are our priority, so we look for strong connections with Seattle, Washington state or the Pacific Northwest.
We want to expose systemic problems, which means we typically don’t tackle stories that affect a small group or just one individual. We look out for victims who are particularly vulnerable, and those who have been silenced or don’t have the ability to draw attention to their cause. We also try to tackle stories that have the potential to generate a large impact: changing laws, removing problematic politicians, shaping policy, ending unfair business practices and other widespread reforms.
We get so many interesting tips from readers, but with our limited time and resources we have to make tough choices about which stories to pursue. It’s one of the hardest parts of the job.
— Mike Reicher, investigative reporter
How do you work to be fair and unbiased?
We take steps to weigh all sides of a story, to contact everyone involved and to keep our reporting free of any biases. As investigative reporters, we don’t presume to know the answers to questions raised during our reporting. Instead, we rely on people, public records and data to guide our investigations and explain what’s really unfolding.
Throughout the reporting and after we complete an investigative story, we use a rigorous fact-checking process that involves validating accounts from sources, documents and data.
Most important, we always reach out to the subjects of our investigations and offer them ample time to respond to our findings. We offer people, government agencies, companies and any other groups involved a chance to respond to any allegations raised. Our reporting is meant to bring transparency. We don’t believe in surprising anyone close to the story with our findings.
— Lulu Ramadan, investigative reporter
Does the editorial board influence what you investigate?
The investigative team — along with the rest of the newsroom — operates independently, under the direction of the executive editor and managing editor. Our work is not influenced by the Seattle Times editorial board or other departments within the company.
The editorial board — which writes opinion pieces, publishes syndicated columns and endorses candidates for public office — reports directly to the publisher, outside the management structure of the news department.
We also retain independence from advertisers, funders and other financial supporters, and we underscore that standard whenever we discuss prospective funding with outside groups or individuals. Funders receive no special access to our journalists or advance notice of stories. In reports to outside funders and in notes to readers, we aim for transparency, repeating statements such as the one on this story.
— Michele Matassa Flores, executive editor
When you’re trying to track down the truth or falsity of something, how do you verify information and know your story is solid?
The truth is a high and difficult target. To get there, we follow a path of verifying facts. When people contact us with a tip, for instance, we ask ourselves a series of questions: Are they in a position to know what they claim to know? What motivations might color how they interpret or describe the tip? Can the information be independently confirmed with documents or data or other people who would know?
Just as with our human sources, we don’t assume a document is accurate without knowing where it comes from. We don’t trust numbers in a spreadsheet until we run our own queries to check for anomalies or errors. Once the reporting takes shape, we test a premise early on by seeking experts — as well as people who might disagree with it.
As we prepare a story for publication, we re-examine every factual claim in the story and review how we know it to be true. For a major investigation, many journalists at The Times will review the story to be sure that it doesn’t go any farther than the facts support and that it is as fair as it can be. Before we publish, we contact every person mentioned in a story and give them a chance to respond in detail. That’s another way of checking both facts and tone, to ensure we’re fair, accurate and sensitive in presenting the information people have shared with us.
— Daniel Gilbert, investigative reporter
When do you use anonymous sources, and how do you vet their accounts?
We strive to be transparent with readers about where we get information, but we also acknowledge there are situations in which naming someone could put them at risk of retaliation or harm. Our paper’s policy is to limit anonymous sourcing to cases in which an important story cannot be told another way.
When someone requests anonymity, a reporter will consult with their editor about whether it’s warranted. The reporter and their editor must know the identity of the person, so they can vet their credibility. We typically come to an agreement with a source about publishing some information (such as a job title) that shows readers why that person is qualified to speak on a topic. We explain in the story why they requested anonymity. As a policy, The Seattle Times does not name survivors of sexual assault in stories unless they choose to be named.
When we feel there is a compelling reason to include unnamed people in our stories, we work hard to verify information and show this work to readers. For stories in which we’re relying on accounts from anonymous sources, we seek supporting evidence and accounts. We do this while protecting the identity of our source, which is a responsibility reporters do not take lightly.
— Asia Fields, investigative reporter
How does your mostly white investigative team authentically report on issues impacting communities of color?
We know that journalism, and especially investigative journalism, has traditionally been dominated by white men. We are working to write a new chapter with an investigations team that better reflects the gender and ethnic diversity of the Pacific Northwest. But there is much more work to be done.
We expect our whole staff to follow our guidelines for inclusive journalism, which have been developed by The Times’ Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. They help us frame stories with an equity and inclusion lens, and we work hard to build a diverse network of sources. We are proud of our work investigating structural inequality, such as our ongoing reporting on the killing of Manuel Ellis by Tacoma police and Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer’s confrontation with a Black newspaper carrier.
— Jonathan Martin, investigations editor
How can people support this journalism?
Investigative reporting is time-consuming and expensive. Our team can only do our journalism and hold power to account with reader support.
The Seattle Times Investigative Journalism Fund launched in 2019 in partnership with Seattle Foundation. Readers can make a tax-deductible donation online or by mail. These funds go directly to our investigative journalism, helping us sustain this important work and expand in the future.
— Taylor Blatchford, engagement editor
What other questions do you have about our investigative journalism? Fill out the form below. (If you can’t see the form, click this link.)