Nov 16, 2013 01:19 PM

What Do Investigative Reporters Do?


With the recent Chen Yongzhou scandal, many have called for an "investigation" into the investigative reporting business. 

I apply the term investigative reporters to those that often wade into the deeper, uncharted waters of the media's realm. I have a hard time thinking of myself as an investigative reporter and I've always felt like a more appropriate description would be a reporter that investigates cases from time to time. The first of my investigations was the Wenzhou high-speed train crash.

For years, Caixin had a series of reports covering corruption within the Ministry of Railways. When the Wenzhou high-speed railway crash happened in 2011, we were ready with a trove of information – the cracked axle, the luxury cars – one finding after another, until the final disintegration of the Ministry of Railways. Another important facet to the high-speed railway crash stories was that it occurred after the mainstream adoption of social media, with a tremendous amount of information disseminated through weibo. The influence of digital media in this disaster was huge, ultimately even affecting the development of how the situation was handled. With this in the background, we came to the scene of accident.

Hotel Sleuthing

Many media organizations offered identical coverage of the crash and it was hard to find an edge. Some brave ones went so far as counting bodies at the morgue, others just wrote down what they saw at the scene and interviewed witnesses.  

But the biggest, and most difficult question at hand was learning more about the cause of the accident. The high-speed railway crash was ultimately a culmination of smaller interwoven disasters, natural and man-made, directly exposing the ills of the Ministry of Railways. That was our focus. 

One day on weibo, I saw a widely forwarded photo in which the government investigation group was shown drinking at a luxury hotel. I recognized their faces and now I knew exactly where they moved to.

That evening, I went to the hotel to try my luck.

Snowy Mountain Hotel is on the outskirts of Wenzhou in an area with few other buildings. When I took a taxi over there, I was immediately in awe of the number of security guards at the entrance. The hotel staff told everyone no more rooms were available. I had no idea that everything had already been arranged for the investigation team.

A security guard who had been staring at me from the minute I walked in told me to leave. I attempted to put on airs and said "I've come all the way from Beijing." The man looked at me bitterly and, perhaps with a passing thought that I was the mistress of some leader, let me continue to sit in the lobby alone.

Who was I waiting for? How would I speak to them? Going for a stroll would be out of the question, so I sat on the couch looking at my phone, and thought about what I might do next.

Then my chance came. A few women in their early 20s were sent in to work on hospitality services, such as arranging meetings and the like. A person named Director Wang walked in and said to everyone, "You, you and you – go to this room and print conference materials for the next meeting."

I was delighted: I would enter the hotel posing as a conference assistant. But then, Director Wang changed his mind. He said only two girls needed to work on the printing materials.

I still headed to the conference room. The hotel was spread out over several detached buildings and it was not easy to find. I saw a building where several guests carrying brief cases were walking out and trailing a bit behind, I followed them. Before I knew it, I was in a conference room corridor standing next to the room attendants and waiters.

What was I to do next? I hid by a door next to the stairs for a while until I heard a waiter run to pick up a phone. I slipped into an open conference room door where the meeting was taking place. I watched the investigators analyze the results of the investigation, feeling excited and nervous. I moved behind a door again and then quickly returned to the attendant's room to plan my next move.

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