Defining Patterns for Profiles

By Barnhart, Bill | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Defining Patterns for Profiles


Barnhart, Bill, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal


Biographical research is an odyssey of fact gathering, fact testing and deductive reasoning that will take as long as a reporter has time to spend.

Journalists who undertake investigative projects often consider biographical profiles of key individuals as sidebars or background elements to enhance their story. But in many cases, a well-crafted life story should be the centerpiece of a reporting project.

People love to read about people. Troubling events that prompt journalistic inquiry do not arise in a vacuum. They are part of a span of behavior by principal actors in the drama, a pattern that could extend back to an individual's formative years.

Without resorting to psychobabble, reporters who suggest connections among significant elements of a key character's life will find that readers become more deeply engaged in their story.

From the standpoint of reporting techniques, gathering string for the warp and woof of a newsmaker profile is a natural wedge for inquiry that helps develop sources and uncover stones.

You don't need a news peg or even any suspicions to initiate reporting for a profile story when a new school superintendent or chief executive officer of a local company comes to town. Biographical research gives structure to your curiosity, whether or not your findings are ever published as a fullblown profile. Evidence and testimony that builds in your profile file will yield dividends in yet unimagined stories.

Stolen minutes and hours make books possible

It took eight years for my co-author, Gene Schlickman, and 1, working in our spare time, to research and write a biography of one of Illinois' most dishonored public figures, former Governor Otto Kerner. But, in hindsight, the richest veins we mined can be tapped during stolen minutes and hours by any journalist working on other assignments.

We began our work with few preconceived notions about where our research would lead. I never met Kerner. Gene was first elected to the Illinois legislature in 1964, the year Kerner won his second four-year term as governor, but Gene had few dealings with Kerner, who joined the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1968.

We were struck by the apparent incongruity between Kerner's life of acclaimed public service, including his chairmanship of the Kerner Commission on the 1967 urban riots, and his conviction and imprisonment on official corruption charges near the end of his life. We began looking for the real Kerner, who died in 1976. Here are some lessons we learned along the way.

Don't limit search to specific person

First, do not limit your document research to specific mentions of your subject. Much of life is not indexed. In biographical profiles, context is fifty percent of the game.

For example, student newspapers are rarely indexed. But time spent turning the pages of student newspapers during the years of your subject's matriculation can yield precious insights about the context of his or her education.

We found in the Brown University student newspaper of 1930 a chilling student essay about the culture of drinking, a theme that was to emerge throughout our story. We found descriptions of student organizations to which Kerner belonged at Brown. Without these articles, which never mentioned Kerner, his student years and their impact on his life would be more difficult to describe.

Incidentally, Kerner's name appears only once, in a minor photo caption, in the yearbook of his senior year at Oak Park and River Forest High School in suburban Chicago. Was he a late bloomer? No. He along with many prominent boys at the school had been expelled in the spring of their senior year and purged from the yearbook - an incident that helped us set the stage for Kerner's later encounter with zealous prosecutors.

In researching our portrait of a close Kerner associate, Theodore Isaacs, we found an obscure newsletter published by a chess league that reported on a 1926 championship match involving Isaacs' father - an anecdote that illuminated Isaacs' character even though he was never mentioned.

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