10 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM
This tutorial outlines the wide range of skills and knowledge required to be a successful investigative journalist, an area of reporting that is changing. Advances in digital technology offer new ways to gather important information, creating fresh challenges and opportunities for investigative journalists.
Some of the principles discussed below are as old as journalism itself, while others reflect a new digital age of investigative reporting. But before we start, a simple question: What is investigative journalism? Basically, an investigative journalist seeks to uncover the truth, exposing corruption along the way. At its core is the heroic and idealistic notion of good overcoming evil and brave journalists going into battle waving the ‘sword of truth’.
The reality, of course, is much less glamorous and involves painstaking and meticulous research, numerous dead ends and hour upon hour of meeting sources and checking facts. But there is nothing more rewarding than a newspaper report or TV documentary that makes a genuine difference and improves people’s lives. That’s the ultimate aim of an investigative journalist.
1) Be Accurate
Start with the most obvious point first. An investigative journalist, more than any other reporter perhaps, stands or falls by the accuracy and depth of their research. When you are exposing an issue that someone wants to keep out of the public domain, who is probably aided by expensive lawyers, you have to make sure your facts are correct. Check and double check what you discover, and then check the facts again. Trust no-one but yourself. You should always be aware that people who reveal information to you may have their own agendas for doing so, and may put a spin on the facts as a result.
2) Public Interest
As an investigative journalist you are, in all likelihood, invading the privacy of the people you are investigating. So you need a good reason for doing so that is protected by law and your legal defence is the ‘public interest’. This means issues of public concern as opposed to stories the public may be interested in, which is something completely different. Investigative documentary-makers and TV news reporters are guided by the Ofcom Code (Tutorials 11 and 12), which regulates commercial television. It states that programme-makers can invade the privacy of an individual if there is a clear case of the ‘public interest’ which may include:
- Revealing or detecting crime
- Protecting public health and safety
- Exposing misleading claims by individuals or organisations
- Disclosing incompetence that affects the public
You should always seek legal advice on this before proceeding, and demonstrate that all other avenues for the story have been exhausted and that this is the only way to reveal the truth.
3) You Always Need Proof
So what you need for your story is proof of what’s really happening. This starts with old-fashioned research and digging. Before you can successfully chase ‘the bad guys’, you need to build a watertight argument that there’s a case to answer. This is how you can do it:
- It’s important to gather documents as hard evidence to support your story wherever possible. Many political investigations are document-led.
- Allegations made by a source need to be scrutinised to ensure their accuracy. Also, if one of your main sources has a few skeletons in their own closet, you must discover these as well, in case the information is used at a later stage to discredit your investigation.
- Talk to experts on the subject to ensure you fully understand the issues being raised. They could be other journalists, activists, scientists, academics or authors on the subject, and they can act as sources of information throughout your investigation. But check out your experts also before trusting what they have to say. Do they have their own reasons for helping? Do they have links with political interests? Check their previous reports or statements to judge the reliability of their analysis.
- Protection of confidential sources is an ethical principle for investigative journalists. It can also bring a journalist into conflict with the law. Refusal to reveal confidential information can lead to prosecution for contempt of court if the journalist defies a court order to name a source.
Whistleblowers are one of the most important sources for investigative stories. They’re separate from other sources, because they are nearly always employees and ‘inside’ the subject being investigated. Many of the most famous investigations start with insiders who risk their jobs by exposing their employers.
You must handle this kind of source with great care because they will be under intense pressure. They may need convincing and re-convincing before the story is complete, and you may need to put their legal and personal protection in place. But you must also check they don’t have an axe to grind against their employer. Do they want to get even? You must be confident that the reason for blowing the whistle is genuine.
It’s also vital that the journalist tells the whistleblower about the risks that lie ahead. They will advise on the law and the potential difficulties that may exist if the editor wants to tell the story in a certain way. But once protection is offered, the journalist is ethically bound to carry this out. This means making sure the whistleblower’s identity is never written down in a document that could be accessed or subpoenaed. The agreement could also result in the journalist’s imprisonment for refusing to reveal a source.
5) Interviews: On and Off The Record
When interviewing sources, you must check if they are on or off the record, especially if the information being revealed puts them at risk. Try to stay on the record where possible, which means you have received ‘informed consent’ from the interviewee, because too many unnamed sources can weaken the story.
But should sources – policemen or public service officials, for instance – be paid for information that leads to a story clearly in the public interest? This is an issue of great debate within the media, and the respected investigative journalist Andrew Jennings argues most definitely not.
He wrote in 2012:
“Don’t believe the myth about the murky workings of the British press. Real investigative journalists don’t pay the police — or anyone else — for stories…
“The journos I’ve worked with over the past 45 years have had our share of great stories – and there was never a price on them. Granada would never have allowed bungs and neither would the three Panorama editors I’ve worked for in recent years. Anyway, it wasn’t necessary. Effective reporters engage with conscientious sources and serve the public interest without cash or chequebook.”
This is a link to his article:
So how do you approach the interview? Here are some tips:
- Don’t rush into an interview. Make sure you have completed thorough research first. If you don’t know your subject inside out, you will lose credibility and the interviewee won’t open up properly.
- Interview in person if possible. By phone is a reluctant second choice, but not by email.
- Record your interview, but write notes at the same time because it focuses the mind.
- Save all notes and recordings to protect yourself in case you are challenged afterwards.
- Read back your notes straight away. Is there anything missed? You want to ask follow-up questions before you leave the interview.
- Avoid leading questions. Ask open not closed questions.
- Be sensitive when interviewing victims. Take extra time and find a safe place to meet.
- If they insist they don’t want to be interviewed, don’t persist. But leave your details in case they change their mind.
- When interviewing children, you must take special caution to protect them from harm. Secure the parents’ permission first and less structured interviews work better with children.
- Leave your toughest interview until last, by which time you should have all the evidence and documentation needed to prepare your interview properly.
6) Undercover Reporting
If the story is clearly in the public interest and there is no other way to get vital information, then undercover reporting is a successful tool for an investigative reporter. World in Action was a famous current affairs series made by Granada Television (1963-1998) that used undercover reporting to great effect and every aspiring investigative journalist should seek out these programmes online.
Below are the iconic opening titles.
The focus of an undercover operation is usually the sting which captures wrongdoing on film. Often a ‘business deal’ activity or an unguarded conversation of some sort taking place. As a result, the journalist may be involved in an illegal ‘business deal’ activity themselves to snare the real culprits, so the public interest value of the sting has to be clearly established beforehand.
Special care should also be given to the safety of the investigative team. How good and secure is their cover? Can dangers to the reporter be reported back to the editor? Has a strong back-up plan been put in place to secure evidence and protect sources?
Due to the deceptive skills required during undercover reporting, especially in dangerous situations, ex-military personnel and similar professions are often invited to become part of the investigation team. Below are links to a series of interviews with an undercover reporter from one of these backgrounds, who talks about his job.
7) Freedom of Information Act (FOI)
Journalism about public affairs is about information that belongs to the state, and the Freedom of Information Act 2000 has proven a very useful tool for journalists who want to investigate how we are governed. It grants individuals a ‘right to access’ information held by public authorities.
Below is a guide to how to submit an FOI request.
Below is a collection of stories based on information gained after an FOI request.
8) Data Journalism
Data journalism is a rapidly growing area within investigative journalism because it offers the opportunity for reporters to understand the significance of raw data. In the past, we may have talked about overall unemployment figures; now those same figures can be analysed to discover how they affect certain ages and sectors of the community. Their specific significance can be explained.
This is an important source of information for investigative journalists because great stories are often hidden away in data spreadsheets. Probably the best example of this is the WikiLeaks War Logs, and below is an article by Simon Rogers from The Guardian about how the data was transformed into a front-page investigation.
Below is a link to the whole data journalism handbook that you can read online.
With the rise in blogging and social media has come a new development which has helped investigative journalists: crowdsourcing. This means that a wider online community can help gather information for a story and also – in some cases – confirm facts as being true. There is the double benefit to the journalist in the newsroom of more expert knowledge being applied to a subject and large numbers helping to develop the story further. Talking Points Memo (link below), one of the most successful investigative blogs in USA, has often invited its readership to pursue big stories. For instance, crowdsourcing helped TPM draw up a timeline about the events leading up to, during and after Hurricane Katrina.
Some journalists doubt crowdsourcing can help in stories that may need a legal training, like issues around libel for instance, but it’s safe to assume that the market has shifted and crowdsourcing will stick around in some way or other for years to come. The growth in online content has also changed the way audiences read investigative stories. David Leigh, a hugely-respected investigative journalist who famously exposed the former Tory minister Jonathan Aitken, believes that dry financial stories can be brought to life online when you can add video and graphics to enliven the telling of the story.
10) Store and Log Evidence
Finally, after you’ve gathered all your evidence, be efficient in how you record your information. You will need to provide your evidence to lawyers at short notice, and they will have plenty of questions you will need to answer before the investigation can go public. So all sensitive information, files, notebooks, video and audio recordings should be stored in a safe place, and logged accurately and comprehensively. The best investigative journalists are highly organised.
Investigative Journalism by Hugo de Burgh