Finding the right investigative stories on your beat

Published on
May 10, 2024

As reporters and editors, one of the questions we often ask ourselves is whether a particular story is worth pursuing. Then, we have to ask ourselves why. 

Why is this particular story worth our time and effort, and why right now? What are we uncovering here that’s new and newsworthy? What isn’t being told here that should be? What potential for impact does this story have? 

On any given day we receive dozens of pitches and tips — from publicists, sources, editors and newsroom colleagues — but we know full well we don’t have nearly enough time to investigate them all. One of the trickiest parts of the job is knowing how to sniff out the issues that warrant further attention and the ones to ignore.  

When I first started working on what would later become the lead story in our multi-part investigative series “Deadly Dose,” I wasn’t sure it was a topic I wanted to pursue. The series ultimately explored the unregulated state of the kratom industry and the hundreds who died while taking the Southeast Asian herb. 

But it didn’t start out that way. 

As the newsroom restaurant and dining critic, I had been tasked with explaining to our readers why our region was home to such a large proliferation of kava bars — cafe or bar-like settings where people could hang out and imbibe kava, a drink made from a root native to the South Pacific. 

It wasn’t that I didn’t think the issue warranted an explainer-type story for our readers; it just didn’t feel like something worthy of a deeper dive. Our newsroom had written a few stories about kava bars that focused primarily on the substance, which is fairly innocuous and can deliver feelings of calm and relaxation. What I quickly learned after some initial reporting, however, was that many people also frequented the bars to drink kratom, a psychoactive substance that can act like a stimulant or sedative depending on the dose. 

We hadn’t written much about kratom, which was virtually unregulated and widely available. I noticed that kava bars selling kratom were sprouting up all over the Tampa Bay area and that it was close to impossible to drive anywhere without passing a smoke shop or gas station advertising the herb with billboards or neon signs. 

Unsure what I’d uncover, I slowly started switching gears from looking at kava to probing kratom in spring 2022. 

I began with a lot of research — reading everything I could find that explained why kratom appeared to be enjoying such widespread popularity in the state. Our coverage at the time had been limited. There were a handful of national stories about the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s failed attempt to federally schedule the substance in 2016, but nothing truly substantive. 

I also immediately got out in the community. I hung out at kava bars and visited smoke shops in the area, chatting up anyone I could to get a better sense of who was using kratom and why. It quickly became clear that this was a substance being used by many to help address symptoms of opioid withdrawal and other ailments, including physical pain, depression and anxiety. 

Around the same time, I began visiting online forums, both for those who hailed kratom as a lifechanging remedy and others who claimed the substance led to debilitating addiction and substance use issues. I spoke with parents in one Facebook group, where several said their children had died from kratom-related overdoses. This piqued my interest: At the time, we’d only heard of a handful of deaths attributed to kratom across the country and just one in Florida.

Those first few interviews would prove crucial in our future reporting. But it wasn’t easy gaining the trust of everyone I spoke with right away. Revisiting the painful details about how their loved ones died wasn’t something that many were willing to do initially. In many cases, the stigma of addiction was overwhelming. Gaining trust took time and investment. Eventually, over multiple phone calls, emails, text message exchanges and in-person visits, I was able to build solid relationships, which helped nourish and inform our reporting efforts.  

That summer, I filed records requests with medical examiner offices in the Tampa Bay region inquiring how many — if any — deaths had been linked to kratom. Within a few weeks, I received paper copies of autopsy reports from one of them.  I immediately began poring over the records from inside my car. 

At first, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. At the time, the dominant narrative, spearheaded by kratom lobbyists, was that it was impossible to overdose on the substance. Yet here in my hands was a stack of 19 cases, recorded over five years, in just two Florida counties. Six of those people had overdosed on kratom alone.

It became clear that the substance — touted by the industry as all-natural and safe — was far more complex. People were dying. And regulators were doing essentially nothing to rein the industry in. 

After discussions with my editors, we decided to focus entirely on kratom and its impact on the state. This was, I was now sure, an investigative story worthy of our time.

Four other reporters joined me from departments around the newsroom. We visited dozens of smoke shops and gas stations, examining how products were sold. We crisscrossed Florida to talk to families of overdose victims. 

To quantify overdoses, we requested records from every Florida medical examiner in the state, hand-entering findings from roughly 600 cases into a database. We spent hundreds of hours interviewing experts and deciphering academic papers to help us understand the autopsy reports 

We described who was dying from kratom and why. We showed how many victims had turned to the herb to ease pain or opioid withdrawal and how the industry targeted these vulnerable groups. We talked to people with debilitating addictions — leading them to take more kratom — despite industry insistence that it was as innocuous as coffee. We explained why mixing kratom with other substances, including common medications, could be dangerous but that companies don’t have to warn of the risk.

As our reporting continued, it also expanded. We examined how state and federal regulators failed to protect kratom consumers. We traced the herb’s shadowy supply chain from the farmland of Indonesian Borneo to the shelves of Florida stores. 

We detailed how these vendors often sold the herb without warnings, dosing instructions, potency information or any labeling at all — leaving customers on their own to determine product safety. 

We also wanted to understand the varying strengths among kratom powders, pills, capsules and liquid shots, so we had researchers at the University of Florida test them. One of these products was so powerful, a scientist compared it to “legal morphine.”

Throughout it all, the importance of building strong relationships with sources became apparent from the early days of vetting the story until we published. We had to return, again and again, to people who’d lost loved ones, researchers studying the herb and workers manufacturing kratom products within a highly secretive culture.  

Over months of reporting, I remained in contact with the first few people I spoke with —  grieving parents who just wanted to understand how and why their children had so easily accessed something that could be so dangerous. 

Some of these people weren’t ultimately named in our series. Still, those early interviews remained crucial in shaping our questions about this growing industry and prompting us to dig deeper.

For reporters attempting to write about sensitive topics like substance use and addiction, it’s important to remember to be patient. Building trust and forging relationships takes time. Often, phone calls or in-person meetings are the bear approach, as opposed to emailing, texting or reaching out over social media (all useful strategies, but ones that can sometimes come off as feeling a little detached). Hearing another voice on the line and taking the time to get to know people, understand their concerns and explain our process as journalists can go a long way. 

For people unaccustomed to being in the media or who are members of marginalized communities, talking to a reporter can be understandably scary. Spending time to not only interview these sources but to also answer their questions is a vital part of good sourcing. And above all else, showing up and truly listening to them is key. 

For me and my reporting partners, this project also emphasized the importance of being enmeshed in your community as beat reporters. The simple act of paying attention — observing the increase of businesses around our region advertising kratom and kava bars commonly listing kratom drinks on their menus — was the genesis of this investigation. From start to finish, we needed to have our boots on the ground. 

We quickly learned that kratom was widely available across the state, but it took visiting multiple kava bars, smoke shops, gas stations and convenience stores to really grasp how prevalent the substance was and to understand the risks with how it was being sold. Through these visits, we became acquainted with who was consuming kratom and why, immediately leading us to pursue several other reporting avenues that became central to our investigation. For example, from these conversations, we knew we wanted to explore the marketing of kratom products to people with opioid addictions and other health issues like anxiety and pain. 

This on-the-ground approach to beat reporting also led us to recognize patterns, which is a hallmark of investigative reporting. First, we noticed the increased presence of kratom in our community and, more broadly, across Florida. Then, we noticed the increased frequency of the substance in autopsy reports and continued to look for patterns among those who died. Spotting these early trends helped us pursue the why and allowed our story to take shape.

For an investigative project, the process of vetting and interrogating your work never ends. This project began, and then endured, because our team had a skeptical and curious eye. Over many months, we were able to weave our shoe-leather reporting with data analysis and expert interviews to demonstrate kratom’s toll in our state.