Adventures in investigative reporting, or the physical manifestation of a bad simile
Investigative journalism can be a lot like foraging for mushrooms.
As the book Shaking the Foundations points out, journalists pick up the spoor of a story in a multitude of ways: an anonymous tip, an overheard rumor, an overlooked piece of information anywhere. A healthy sense of skepticism leads a reporter to think— hey, something is a little off here. Like the forager, a journalist’s job is to decide whether a mushroom is edible or not; that is, if a story is something worth digging for in the dirt, something worth uprooting.
I decided to bring this mushroom simile to life this block by focusing my investigative work on the decriminalization of psilocybin mushrooms in my hometown of Denver. I chose this topic for my reporting class because I knew it would easily hold my attention for three weeks. Denver made history last May when it became the first metropolis in the United States to make magic mushrooms the lowest priority of law enforcement. Two California cities have followed suit, Oakland and Santa Cruz.
A key to investigative reporting is the document trail. This kind of journalism seeks to uncover and expose corruption of people in power, often government officials, or at least shed light on their behavior and hold them accountable for their actions. In reality, this glamorous job is often accomplished by weeks or months of tedious work, involving records requests, interviews, and combing through documents and databases.
This block I filed my very first records request under the Colorado Open Records Act, known as CORA. It was, to say the least, an unusual demand. When Denver decriminalized psychedelic mushrooms, it created the Psilocybin Mushroom Policy Review Panel—the first of its kind in the United States—to discuss and evaluate the effects of the initiative. My request? I wanted to see all emails exchanged between the 11 board members regarding their work on the panel—emails that, as government records, I was guaranteed access to under CORA.
To my excitement, the mayor’s office got back to me within a week.
But in looking through the email threads, I failed to unearth anything particularly groundbreaking. Not even a mushroom-inspired joke or a sprinkling of creative wordplay. This was serious business. The emails revealed the names of those appointed to the panel and in which room their first meeting would take place. The panel director, in forwarding her emails to the records custodian, summed up the contents perfectly, labeling it “spell-binding stuff.”
I sent my other records requests to the Denver District Attorney, the Denver Police Department, and the Fourth Judicial District of Colorado. Someone in the Denver District Attorney’s office thanked me for my email and said the request could take four to six weeks to fulfill. I have yet to hear back from the latter two entities. Though agencies are supposed to acknowledge your records request within three business days, these are unprecedented times. Normally I love being a pest, but the pandemic made me hesitant, as I’m sure my request isn’t the highest of priorities right now.
Impacts of the virus also completely changed the way I do my reporting. As I’m sure is the case with many of us, I spend my days in quarantine glued to my computer, conducting interviews for The Catalyst student newspaper over Zoom rather than in person, and asking the CC community questions via Instagram stories. I jump over hurdles created by COVID-19 and keep running. I remind myself that when society is able to function safely again, I will never take interviewing a source over coffee for granted.
For now, I continue to forage. There is something comforting in the search for information that’s hidden in the ground or in plain sight—how just a little bit of digging has the potential to make the world a better place.