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A Journey Through Investigative Reporting: An Interview with Rebecca Ballhaus ’13

Rebecca Ballhaus ’13 is a journalist and investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal. After graduating from Brown University in 2013, she has covered areas of politics such as daily news, campaign finance, and the White House under the Trump administration. Notably, she was part of a team that was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for their investigative work, “Trump’s Hush Money,” which exposed the payments made to silence women making sexual allegations against Donald Trump. Along with this investigation, Ballhaus has done expository work following the 2020 impeachment trial, the 2019 Russian interference scandal, and more. 

MD: When you first embarked on your journey into the field of journalism, was there anything in particular that you wanted to change? If not, what would you like to see change in the field? 

RB: That’s a really good question. I don’t know that I set out with something I wanted to change. I was interested in being a journalist because I had always been interested in digging into things and investigations. I’ve just always been very curious, liked politics and reading about politics, and was interested to experience Washington through the lens of somebody who can ask questions and find out more than just what they’re being told. As I’ve been in this profession for a longer time, I noticed the biggest problem that journalism faces is the lack of trust in the media. That’s something that got a lot worse over the last four years. We’ve really gotten to a place where people can’t agree on a common set of facts, which is a huge problem for our industry, but also for the country as a whole. In the end, improving trust across the board is something journalists can do, but it’s also something that has to come outside of the field. 

MD: Could you briefly explain the investigative process for our readers who might not be aware of what investigative journalism constitutes

RB: The first part of any good investigation is coming up with a target. It is important to spend a lot of time figuring out what you want to spend your time on, because any investigation is going to take months to years. You want to make sure that your target is worthy and that there will be something new and important to disclose at the end of the process. After this, you want to identify the players involved. For example, the WSJ did a story on extremism earlier this year about the groups that had been involved in the storming of the Capitol. 

Early on, a big part of our process was figuring out who the main subjects should be, who we cared most about, and how to work our way up towards them. You never want to reach out to the main target of your investigation right away, because you want to be armed with as much information as you can by the time you get to them. Additionally, figuring out who is the most distant relevant person to your topic is crucial. You often need an expert who can give you sort of an overhead view of this area that will help you know what to look for and where to look for it. I always think of it as “starting from the outermost part of the circle and moving inward”. 

Also, you want to look for records as often as possible. This is because any time you can have documentation that backs up something you’re saying, you’re on much more solid footing, and it will generate new leads. Afterwards, you just want to talk to as many people as you possibly can. This is to make sure that there’s nothing missing and that you are being fair in your approach. 

MD: Can you pinpoint any misperceptions people may have about this process? 

RB: People assume that you hear something and then immediately print it. They miss the fact that there’s a ton of vetting, fact-checking, and corroboration that goes into any story. It’s an elaborate process of trying to confirm what someone is telling you, getting documents to back it up, and revisiting your sources repeatedly. It’s incredibly painstaking. This level of effort gets missed by a lot of readers. 

MD: Do you believe it will be easier to establish greater trust between the public and the media under the Biden administration now that Trump is out of office?

RB: It’s hard to say. Trump was really critical of the media. He didn’t help matters by constantly portraying the media as the enemy of the people. Unfortunately, it seems the damage has been done. This didn’t start with Trump. Nonetheless, Trump exacerbated that trend and it’s very hard to put that genie back in the bottle, especially when you have such a diverse array of media outlets that people can choose from. Biden may attack the press less often than his predecessor, but that doesn’t necessarily change the fact that people want to read what they know and already believe, and they don’t want to be exposed to a different set of facts or opinions. 

MD: What have you learned about the nature of political fundraising from your time covering campaign finance? 

RB: That’s a good question. I think that that world certainly has changed since I was covering it in 2014 and 2016. More generally, campaign finance is a perfect starting out-beat for any reporter because it teaches you the fundamentals of reporting while also letting you establish an expertise that doesn’t rely on you having a wide network of sources (which you’re not going to have starting out). Covering campaign finance teaches you how to dig through records, spot themes, and to expand your network of sources. In terms of how the world of campaign finance has changed, what you’re seeing, and what you’ve seen under the Trump years, is the rise of small donors. When I was starting out, a lot of the focus was on dark money (money where donors don’t have to be identified), the rise of super PACs, and mega donors who were bankrolling candidates by donating millions of dollars to their super PACs. Trump, at first, was not as popular with major donors and was able to fuel his rise with small-dollar donors. As a result, other candidates have been trying to ”catch up” to that. 

MD: Throughout your career, you have transitioned from campaign finance, to covering the White House, to investigative reporting. What prompted these shifts, and where do you see your career going in the future?

RB: A lot of it was circumstantial. I got into campaign finance reporting because I worked a lot with a reporter at my first internship who covered campaign finance, and who was looking to expand what he was doing. When Trump got elected, the Wall Street Journal quickly built up a team because they realized how much constant news there would be. I joined around the first week Trump was in the White House. During my four years covering Trump, there were many investigations to follow in Congress and from SDNY and Robert Muller. I became interested in covering those investigations, and in doing investigations of my own. As Trump’s term was drawing to a close, that seemed like the perfect way to expand my horizons. After you deal with this fire hose of news for four years, you forget the investigative skills a little bit. I wanted to feel like I was able to exercise that part of my brain, and I also just really loved working with the WSJ’s investigation team. Because of this, I was able to move over to investigations right after Trump lost the White House. 

MD: Your team’s prize-winning article, “Trump’s Hush Money”, revealed the payments Trump made to stop women from speaking publicly about his alleged affairs. What was the biggest challenge that you faced during this investigation? 

RB: This was a set of stories that I did with a bigger group at the Wall Street Journal. My colleagues broke some of the earlier stories, and our team grew from there. One of the most challenging parts was answering the questions “Did Trump know?” and “Did Trump direct his lawyer to make these payments?”. Many people made assumptions, but initially nobody had any proof. Trying to nail down every detail in that narrative was incredibly challenging. In the end, it was very rewarding because we were able to piece together an account that was later backed up by prosecutors. 

MD: The response and the impact of this piece must have been so rewarding. Congratulations. 

RB: Yes, it was certainly very rewarding. In some ways, it was weird to see how Trump weathered this. He was implicated in two federal crimes, yet it bounced off of him like everything else. In the end, it was definitely gratifying to feel like we got to the bottom of what had happened. 

MD: For that article in particular, was it easier to find reliable sourcing and work up to bigger sources due to the fact the Trump administration had a lot of turnover in hiring and firing advisors and staff? 

RB: Yes, it was [laughs]. It was always very interesting to see how people went from being incredibly difficult to reach to incredibly easy to reach after they left the administration. This was absolutely helpful to source-citing. In some ways, it meant you had to be continually getting new sources from the administration, and it was difficult to constantly develop new relationships. On the other hand, if you had a question about something that had happened a year ago, you knew there would be a number of people who you could talk to. 

MD: Do you have a favorite article that you’ve written or piece you’ve worked on?

RB: I had a story about halfway through the Trump administration that Trump wanted the USS John McCain to be out of sight during a visit that Trump was making to Japan. That was a story that came together somewhat quickly and had a huge outpouring of response. It was rewarding because the story seemed to strike a chord with a lot of people. 

MD: Is it the response from the public, fellow journalists, or other sources that makes an article rewarding?

RB: It’s a combination. The ultimate goal for any story is that you have some sort of an impact. I have a lot of friends who are not very into politics, so it is particularly exciting when they read or hear about one of my stories. Sadly, a lot of the reader mail that you get as a reporter, especially as a Trump reporter, is hate mail. People are saying, “You’re fake news and I don’t believe you.” On the other hand, you also get really thoughtful reader emails. They say that your article made them understand something better, or taught them something new. That’s probably the best part of it. 

MD: Do you find that you are more skeptical in your everyday life due to the way in which investigative reporting exposes peoples’ tendencies to deny their stories and lie? 

RB: When I first started out as a reporter, I never really understood why anyone talked to the press. In my eight years reporting, it’s become clear how much people talk to the press as a way to advantage themselves. It’s not just out of the goodness of their hearts that they’re talking to a reporter, but because there’s something they’re hoping to get out of it. In that sense, it certainly makes you maybe more cynical but also gives you a better understanding of people and how they think and how they work. For example, under Trump, the White House would regularly deny things that we had very solidly confirmed. It makes you want to make sure you are armed with as much information as possible so you’re prepared for whatever comes at you. 

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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