Q&A with N&O reporter Mandy Locke on the Deadly Force series

Mandy Locke is an investigative reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her recent series, Deadly Force, examines violent incidents surrounding the sheriff’s office in Harnett County, including the death of an inmate who was shot with a Taser. In this interview, conducted by email, Locke discusses how the multimedia series came together and how the N&O published it in print and online.

Q. How did the Deadly Force series come about? What were some of the obstacles you faced in your reporting?

A. I wish I could claim some sort of brilliance, but the initial tip to this story came because of a relationship. I had a long-ago source, an eccentric lawyer whom I met as a cub reporter in 2004. He would now and again leave me ranting, raving voicemails late at night over the years.

He left one of those in December. John Livingston, he said, shouldn’t have died. A deputy who was at the wrong house with no permission to enter had killed Livingston.

Naturally, this sounded important. But, it was one of about eight important stories on my list in the new year when I met with my investigative teammates and our editor. How or why I bit this off first may have been simply random; it may have been fate.

Within hours of my visit to Harnett County, to the place where John Livingston died, I was convinced this was something. I didn’t know how big and wide and tough this “something” would be to report, but my gut said, “Whoa, stop. Listen. Think.”

Obstacles? So many. Where to start? Simple sentences:

  • Officials here rarely dealt with reporters.
  • I had few established sources.
  • I was an “outsider.”
  • My subjects had become distrustful; they were beleaguered.

Q. The series was available each day in the print newspaper or all at once on the website. It also has a video trailer and a podcast. Why did the N&O decide to present this story this way?

A. In the last several years, The N&O and our parent company, McClatchy, have learned much about storytelling and how best to harness our platforms. Our digital audience had different engagement patterns than our print audience. Our audience increasingly engages better through video and infographics.

We launched the first part of the series online on a Friday, when our online audience is high; same story ran in print Sunday, when our print audience is high. It takes a mind shift.

I learned this year that there is no shortcut to reporting. You must dig and push and press. However, there are so many ways to tell a story.

Though I love to write, I had to check that sensibility at the door. What is the best way to tell this story? Video? Podcast? How do I help people relate and respond to this work? We do not have the luxury of expecting people to digest our work in traditional formats because they must.

Q. How did editing, fact checking and headline writing work for the series?

A. We are rigid at the N&O. For good cause.

For each and every word and fact, I must present the document or the audio interview or transcript to my editor, Steve Riley. It takes about a day for me to prepare one story for this test. It takes another day to go through it with Steve.

We do not employ fact checkers, and even if we did, there is no shortcut to shoring up a significant story for public scrutiny.

Headline writing is by committee. A team evaluates and challenges, and eventually, we settle on something that works.

Q. Investigative reporting is expensive and time-consuming. What do you see as its future as newspapers continue to face reductions in budgets and staffing?

A. This is the most pressing question in journalism in my estimation.

I give credit to John Drescher and other top leaders of the N&O for preserving and expanding our investigative efforts in the age of falling revenues and layoffs.

As a breed, investigative journalists are expensive. Our work is risky, time-consuming and often does not endear us to those who keep this business afloat through advertising revenues.

Investigative journalism exists because people like John Drescher refuse to relinquish it, despite the expense. It exists because readers tell us over and over that his is what they want and expect from our news organization. We do this because it is our duty.

Read the Deadly Force series and follow Mandy Locke on Twitter.