Goldberg's Toolbox: Going under cover, the FOIA dance, stakeouts and persistence

Published on
August 21, 2009

Matt Goldberg says that he has "hands-down" the best job in the world. He works without times constraints and chases whatever stories he wants. He loves his boss, he loves his team.

"The only requirement I have is that I have to show up with big stories," he says.

Which begs two questions: What is this mythical job? And how does he consistently find big stories?

Goldberg is the senior investigative reporter at KNBC-TV in Los Angeles. But Goldberg's exuberence belies the hard work behind his job. Upon closer questtioning, he reveals that he has close to as many interruptions as that of many a daily producer. He airs a story every week, produces a weekend news magazine, is on call in the newsroom on some weekends in addition to administrative duties as a senior manager. To get his big stories, his team uses hidden cameras, computer-assisted reporting, requests for public records, and persistence to track down stories about safety for consumers.

"When you are passionate about a story, you don't mind putting in your own time," he said after his presentation to the California Broadcast Fellows.

He does what he calls "the FOIA dance" -- requesting public records from government federal agencies using the Freedom of Information Act. Actually filing a request is not that difficult, but actually getting the documents can sometimes be a challenge. But never take no for an answer. "A lot of the art of it is actually writing the request," said Goldberg.

He gives the example of a 2005 story about health ratings of apartment buildings. The Los Angeles County of Department of Public Health regularly inspects buildings and gives them health ratings. Goldberg requested the ratings but was told that the documents he wanted were not available. In three weeks, he got information about the buildings he featured in the story by requesting the computer backups of their database. Using Microsoft Access, he was able to import the data and begin analyzing it. As a result of the investigation, the Department of Public Health now publishes ratings on their website.

A 2006 story about hospital performance began when a tipster had trouble finding ratings or information. Goldberg sought state records about errors in hospitals. What he got were 400 records, a large stack of paper documents that chronicled serious medical errors or illegal actions in 150 Southern California hospitals. He took three weeks to go through the stack and find cases to investigate further by looking at court records and tracking down patients.

A 2007 report about rat infestations and unsanitary conditions at Los Angeles' 7th Street Market, one of the biggest in the country according to the report. Reporting the story was a lesson in patience. He used old-fashioned gumshoe tactics to discover which restaurants were buying their produce at the market: for over a month, he and his team watched people buy products and then followed delivery trucks to restaurants in Long Beach, Pasadena and San Diego. His cameraman caught a health inspector on hidden cameras admonishing vendors to clean up because NBC might be coming to the market.

In another piece, about unsafe levels of lead in school drinking fountains, Goldberg obtained an internal report that showed that the Los Angeles Unified School District knew about the problem for decades. The district solution: to flush water fountains. Lead levels go down if the fountains run for 30 seconds. Goldberg staked out schools and discovered that custodians were not following the policy and flushing the fountains. And even if fountains were flushed, lead levels still remained at unsafe levels.

"This story is a good example of, 'Never believe what your are told,'" Goldberg says. "[The superintendent] didn't know that we were watching the custodians." He also emphasized the importance of timing. He is very careful to consider the right moment to confront a lax regulator or negligent landlord. If done too soon, he risks a quick whitewash of the physical evidence.

The series of stories about school drinking water won an award from the Investigative Reporters and Editors. Goldberg's reporting has also won 13 local Emmys and two Edward R. Murrow prizes.