Q&A With Sam Roe

By Covering Business     March 2, 2012

Sam Roe is an investigative reporter and a journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago. In 2008, he was a part of the investigative team at The Chicago Tribune that won the Pulitzer Prize.

Twenty-six years ago, you were getting ready to start your second semester as a graduate student at Columbia. Were you interested in investigative reporting back then? When did you know what kind of stories you wanted to write?

When I attended Columbia, one of my professors, Melvin Mencher, taught me that journalists have a lot of power and moral obligation to expose wrongdoings and injustice, to make a difference to people’s lives.

You’ve uncovered abuse in a health care facility, drawn back the curtain on hazardous children’s toys and exposed a safety hazard in the construction of nuclear weapons. Why does anyone talk to you anymore?

My goal is to ensure that the stories I write are accurate. It’s hard for people to challenge that. Before my stories go to print, I do a lot of fact checking and verifying. With the health care investigation, the owner of the facility was upset. But few people could disagree with such a situation. They did put up a fight before my story came out. But you learn not to take that personally. You treat it as a part of the business. If you’ve made someone mad, you are probably writing a good story. That’s what I tell my students.

You’ve written about malfeasance at private companies for years. Broadly, are companies regulated more tightly or loosely than they were ten years ago?

That’s hard to say. It depends on the agency involved. A lot of corporate regulations aren’t enforced, and there aren’t enough people at the federal, state and local levels. So, even if there a lot of regulations, many are meaningless. Also, industries have a huge hand in how regulations are framed. The regulatory model in place is self-policing. Now, industries are not going to write themselves a ticket. Nevertheless, laws are written that way. And even if wrongdoers are caught, the penalties are very small.

A lot of investigative pieces are born out of beats, but you hop between subjects. How do you come up with story ideas?

I just keep my eyes open and read a lot. I try to develop the next idea before I wrap up my current project. You bounce ideas off colleagues and bosses. You want to have an idea that impacts a lot of stories. It is also important to look for doable stories, where you balance public service with feasibility.

Do you have a process for developing sources in unfamiliar areas?

Now that I am older, I tend to pick up the phone earlier on and talk to top experts in the field. When I was younger, I would hesitate to do that, as I didn’t want to appear stupid. So I would read a lot more back then and interview people around the edges.

Today, I’ve learned that it is important to consult with experts in the field. In investigative journalism, however, documents drive stories. You conduct interviews after the body of evidence you find in documents.

Your stories have sparked federal investigations, product recalls and legislative reforms. At this point, is your main goal to effect change or inform readers about injustice?

I believe in advocacy journalism. A part of the goal is to stop it and fix it. But all of it is to be true and based on fact. You can’t, at the outset, make up your mind that something is wrong and that you are going to fix it. It’s fact-based reporting that drives reform.

Because your stories often expose some negligence or mistreatment, you end up reporting on a lot of human tragedy and suffering. Is it hard to stay impartial in those situations? Have you ever felt like your emotions got the better of you?

I’d like to think not. Stories are complicated. You have to be focused on what the truth is. You can’t let people’s personal problems sidetrack you. To prove that certain people or groups intend harm is difficult. So, one must be objective. We do sympathize with people. But I often focus on the distinction between ‘someone died’ and ‘someone unnecessarily died.’

Before coming to the Tribune, you were a projects reporter at the Toledo Blade and a copy editor at the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram. Did either job make you a better investigative journalist?

Yes, I did that for 14 years. I learned how the government, agencies and court systems work. I got the hang of following paper trails. I began to see patterns in the behavior of people in power.

If you do that for five to 10 years, you can visualize your stories better. If you can conduct an investigation in a smaller town, you can do it in a bigger town as well. It is pretty much the same approach.

Do you have any regrets as an investigative journalist?

The greatest regret of my life in journalism is not writing extensively about the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The U.S. media faced a lot of pressure to look the other way. I did do some reporting on Iraq, but I didn’t jump on the story.


This interview was conducted on Dec. 23, 2011 by Nish Amarnath. It has been edited and condensed.

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