10 Skills Journalism Brings to Private Investigations Work

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From meeting deadlines to critical thinking, the skills acquired on a daily news beat can be essential to a PI’s work.

A version of this article first appeared on Mike Spencer’s LinkedIn profile.

What I’ve always liked about private investigations is the breadth of experience and intelligence of my colleagues. Ex-law-enforcement personnel swell the ranks of the P.I. field, but others come from different backgrounds, including law, human resources, accounting, academia and in my case, journalism.

I’m often asked at cocktail parties, “Were you an ex-cop?” I respond, “No, ex-newspaper reporter.”

The lessons I learned from journalism training and my work at daily papers in Virginia, Florida and California have been incredibly valuable to me as an investigator. A liberal arts college degree is also useful because of the emphasis on critical thinking and writing. (And as the self-employed know, we are always selling ourselves and our services.)

These are skills I learned — as an English major and a journalist — that I use every day as a private investigator:

1. Adherence to Deadlines

Reporting is all about meeting deadlines. At a daily, you might have up to three deadlines a day. Editors beat it into your head.

The legal and investigations worlds also thrive on timeliness. Investigative work is often time-sensitive, and getting the work done fast (without sacrificing quality) is a vital skill.

2. Accuracy

There’s nothing worse in the newspaper business than having to research and write your own correction. There are factual errors, spelling mistakes, misquotes, and numerous other pitfalls to avoid. Accuracy is the currency of news and investigations.

We are paid to get it right.

3. Awareness of Bias

A young reporter learns that most sources have an agenda, an axe to grind, or an ingrained bias. These biases range from overt to covert. Young scribes also realize that they, too, have conscious or subconscious views that could affect news coverage, as do their editors and publishers.

A private investigator needs a sophisticated sense of detecting bias, even within himself. (Some also refer to this as the “B.S. detector.”)

4. The Mighty Pen

My English professor friend Jonathan calls writing, “the public face of your intelligence.” News writing on deadline may not reach great heights, but it’s usually clear and occasionally compelling.

As private investigators, we write reports in bulk. Lawyers and other clients need to read them quickly, so the reports have to be of high quality, simply written and concise. As criminal defense attorney Tony Serra said, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.”

5. Resourcefulness

Good reporters know their way around their beat. If they can’t get information one way, they might look for it somewhere else. The news business exposes reporters to numerous public agencies. Reporters quickly learn what agency oversees what, on a local, state or national level.

Private investigators need the same enterprising spirit.

6. Cultivating Sources

Oscar-winner “Spotlight” portrayed Boston Globe reporters building sources to expose the patterns of abuse and cover-up by the Catholic church. The reporters knocked on a lot of doors, sometimes getting nowhere.

Unlike law enforcement, reporters and private investigators have no legal authority. Coercion won’t work, so being nice to interview subjects is a much better way of getting them to talk. 

Good reporters form relationships with people, and bad ones use them once or burn them. Private investigators need the same commitment in finding witnesses, forming relationships, and encouraging them to share what they know.

7. Communication

Beyond writing and producing the news, journalists must constantly communicate with editors, other bosses, assistants and sources. Private investigators have to do the same with lawyers, paralegals, office managers, sources and private clients. Bad things happen when communications break down.

8. Endurance

Breaking news and investigations, especially surveillance, are unpredictable. Covering a natural disaster such as a hurricane or firestorm will test any reporter, often requiring days or weeks of exhausting 24-7 reporting, with little or no notice.

Surveillance investigators need similar reserves of energy. In both professions, it’s not uncommon to have a 16-hour work day.

9. The Ability to Learn

Twenty years ago, we didn’t have big data, a social media explosion, or technology that is outdated in six months. A liberal arts education exposes students to new ideas and subject matter; good journalists are constantly studying new material, especially when they cover a story outside of their regular beat.

Private eyes also have to learn new tricks. You don’t have to be a master of everything, but it helps to at least be aware of what’s new and upcoming.

10. Honesty

Shortcuts, ethical breaches and dishonesty will derail any career, but a breach of trust may well destroy a journalist the fastest. Word gets around in any job about ethical lapses. I have heard of way too many investigators taking retainers without providing services, or even lying about whether someone was served with legal papers.

The Takeaway

journalism background gives useful skills to any professional, from critical thinking to communication and the ability to work hard under pressure. When I hire a part-time investigator or work with a sub-contractor, I want the person to have at least four or five of these traits.

About the Author:

Mike Spencer has a master’s degree in journalism from UC-Berkeley. He is the owner of Spencer Elrod ServicesInc., and investigates criminal defense, civil cases and family law for trial lawyers in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before that, he worked as a crime and general assignment reporter. Check out his blog, Private Eye Confidential, and follow him on Twitter @SpencerPI.

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Q&A: Mike Spencer, Bay Area Private Investigator