A crowd of Medill students packed a classroom of the McCormick Foundation Center to hear David Barboza, New York Times Shanghai bureau chief, speak about his experiences in investigative reporting. Barboza won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 “for his striking exposure of corruption at high levels of the Chinese government, including billions in secret wealth owned by relatives of the prime minister, well-documented work published in the face of heavy pressure from the Chinese officials,” according to the Pulitzer Prize board.
Barboza recalled stories of his work in China and gave the students advice about succeeding in investigative journalism. Rumors are a major starting point, according to Barboza, but they can’t be taken at face value. It took years of examining tips and sources before his prize-winning investigation of the Chinese government even got to editors, let alone to the newsstands.
“Patience is key,” he said. “Many people would get a tip, rush to check it and decide whether or not to publish the story. I’m patient. I may sit on a story idea or rumor waiting for it to blossom at some point. I’m planting seeds for stories that may or may not blossom, depending on an event or the right timing.”
Barboza stressed the importance of business knowledge in any style of reporting, from social justice to science to entertainment. Business acumen helps reporters trace financial relationships and track connections, he said.
“In investigative reporting, one of the most important things you’re looking for is relationships,” Barboza said. “You [try] to examine any strange relationships that don’t make sense.”
Barboza spent a lot of his time in China interviewing people that objected to his involvement in their affairs. He even received some threats, but his drive to seek the truth pushed him to get information and point of view from those exposed.
“Never write a story about someone without giving them an opportunity to defend themselves,” Barboza said. “Imagine if you’re wrong. For that reason, I will never publish a story without trying to reach [all parties]. Reaching those people could save your career.”