Chapter 40: Investigative reporting in practice

In this, the second of the three chapters on investigative journalism, we give practical advice on how to undertake the task and make sure your work is reliable and accurate. In the third chapter on investigative reporting we discuss how to write your stories or compile your reports and we conclude with advice on some ethical and legal problems you may meet along the way.

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The task of the investigative reporter may seem full of difficulties, but if you follow some simple hints it can be quite easy.

Contacts

We cannot stress often enough how important a journalist's contacts are. These are the people who can give you story ideas, information and tell you when you are on the wrong track. Make as many contacts as you can - and look after them as you would a friend.

Good investigative reporters have contacts in the places most likely to provide stories. Your contacts do not have to be people at the top of departments or companies. In fact, people down the ladder are often more practical use. Identify people in key positions within organisations. Good contacts are people like court clerks, council clerks, company clerks - in fact, clerks almost anywhere. These are the people who see all sorts of information you might find useful.

Trade union leaders are good contacts in the commercial world, as are accountants or financial advisers. Because groups such as lawyers, police officers, accountants, doctors, nurses, delivery drivers and politicians enjoy chatting about people in their profession, you only have to establish one or two good contacts within any group to get a lot of information about what is happening within the profession.

Always listen, even if what your contact says is no immediate use. If a contact rings when you are out, always ring them back, otherwise you may lose them. Protect your contacts and never reveal them if they ask you not to. Even contacts such as council clerks who are allowed to give you information openly may not want to seem to be favouring you, so be discreet.

Make good relations with other people in your news organisation. They will have their own contacts who might be useful. It is always good to get to know the people who sell advertising space in your newspaper, radio or television station. They meet all sorts of people in their work and always like to talk. They usually love passing information to their journalists.

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Listen

Good journalists know how to listen. Listen to people even if they do not seem to have any useful information. They may still say something you can use later.

If a contact calls you with information which you do not think you can use, do not tell them so immediately. Say you will "look into the matter" and the next time you talk to them, mention that "I couldn't use your information, but thanks anyway". This approach keeps them feeling important.

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Interviewing

You will need to interview people in your search for facts. Never interview the person at the centre of the investigation first. Always start at the edge and work your way towards the middle. You must not warn the person under investigation too soon. Also, you need to gather as many facts as possible before you put your questions to the person at the centre.

For example, you may be investigating a rumour that Mr X, the manager of the city rubbish dump, has accepted bribes to allow companies to dump dangerous waste illegally. Start by interviewing drivers of garbage trucks who use the dump, then the managers of their companies and finally, if you have enough information by then, question Mr X himself. Start with those people who are innocent or just on the edge of the corruption (because they will speak most freely), before digging deeper into the centre of the matter.

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Make notes

Make lots and lots of notes. Write down everything, however unimportant it may seem at the time.

If you cannot write your notes immediately, write them as soon as possible. For example, if you are having a private conversation with a contact in a club, he may not want other people to see you making notes like a reporter. Make your notes as soon as you get somewhere private, like your car or the toilet!

Keep all your notes in order. It is good practice in a big and lengthy investigation to set up a filing system for notes, reports and other documents. This will keep them in order and separate from any other stories you might be working on at the same time.

Keep all your notes, tapes and documents in a safe place, just in case there is a fire or the office is burgled by the people you are investigating or raided by the police. In an important investigation, make copies of all material and take them home or leave them with a trusted friend, a lawyer or in a bank. You cannot resist the police if they come with a warrant to take material from your office, but you do not need offer them information on where you keep any other copies of your notes.

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Protecting documents

Your contacts or anonymous people may give you confidential documents exposing some corruption, such as a letter from Mr X to the rubbish companies asking for bribes (though he might not use that word). Or it could be a confidential report that a new public building is about to fall down, something the government wants to keep secret.

We say that such documents have been "leaked" - like water through a hole in a pipe. You must be especially careful in protecting such leaked documents, because the legal owners of them (such as Mr X or the government) could get a court order forcing you to give them back. If they have a code on them somewhere which can identify that particular copy, they might be able to trace your source who leaked that copy. One tip is to photocopy the document then either destroy the original or hand it back to your source to put back in the proper place. Then you cannot be accused of possessing stolen goods. Now use scissors to cut out any parts of your photocopy which might give clues to who sent it to you. If the police do seize your documents, they may not be able to trace who sent it.

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Teamwork

Where possible, try to work with another reporter on a big investigation. They can go with you on difficult interviews, to make their own notes, to protect against threats and to support you if the interviewee later denies something he said.

Working with a partner allows you to divide up some of the time-consuming work of chasing leads and checking public records.

A partner will also be able to discuss the story with you in detail. Together you might be able to solve a puzzle which you alone cannot solve.

A partner will also stop you feeling isolated. Because investigative reporting can be a long and lonely job, you need someone near you to give support and tell you when you are going right or wrong.

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Sources of information

Although a lot of your work may be digging for secrets, you can get a lot of useful information openly from official sources and documents if you know where to look.

Official sources

There are official reports, minutes of meetings, company reports, transcripts of courts or commissions, records of land ownership, police records, even yearbooks, telephone books and electoral lists. By piecing together information from these sources, helped by talking to contacts, you can build up your jigsaw.

For example, if a disco burns down in suspicious circumstances, you can find who might benefit from insurance money by checking who owns it. Look in the company records and land titles records. You might be surprised to find that the person who runs the disco does not really own it. Court records might tell you whether any of the real owners have any criminal records for arson or fraud. Bankruptcy court records might tell you whether the owner is in financial trouble. You build up the picture piece by piece.

Unfortunately, because the situation varies from country to country, it is impossible to give detailed advice here of where you should look for official information. It is something you will have to learn by asking friends, colleagues and contacts - then doing it.

In countries like the United States where there are laws which allow members of the public to examine all sorts of public records, the task of the investigative reporter is made easier - even if it still takes a long time. Freedom of Information (FOI) laws set down rules about which records are open for the public (including journalists) to see. They also include rules on how people can ask to see official information and what to do if information is refused.

If you do not have any FOI laws in your country, perhaps you and your fellow journalists can lobby your politicians to introduce them. (You can get details on FOI laws by contacting journalism associations or councils for civil liberties in countries such as the United States, Britain or Australia.)

If you do not have FOI laws in your country, your Constitution may give you some rights to examine government records. Check this with a good lawyer.

Even if there is no law giving you the right to examine official documents, some public bodies may have rules which allow the public (including journalists) to see certain records. Some court and parliamentary records are usually available for inspection. Your country may also have bodies such as a companies commission, corporate affairs commission, public stock exchange or securities commission which keep records on commercial companies. You should ask if their records are open to public inspection. Most democracies have laws which state that all public companies must produce certain kinds of regular reports (such as annual reports, lists of directors and financial statements). These records may be available for inspection.

The general rule should be: Whether you have a legal right or not to examine records, you should ask to see them. Sometimes you may be lucky and an official will let you see records you are not legally entitled to. Sometimes they may refuse permission, in which case you should find out whether you can appeal to anyone higher up to change the decision.

If you are blocked in your search, why not ask a politician to help out? He or she may have access to records which you have not been able to see. Politicians may agree to help either because they want to help to expose wrongdoing or because it will help them against their opponents.

Overseas information

You may need information about foreign governments, companies or organisations. Perhaps the company you are investigating is based overseas. You could try to get information or help from a number of organisations such as international news services, universities, international computer databases, foreign embassies or lobby groups such as Greenpeace or Amnesty International.

If your story has connections with another country, contact a news organisation in that country and agree to work on the investigation together, sharing information and ideas. If the story is big enough, they might even send their journalists to work with you.

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Gathering evidence

It is never ethical to trick people to gain evidence for a story, but you can sometimes set your own trap without lying.

For example, if you are investigating a story about Garage X which is charging customers for repairs it never makes, you can test that garage yourself. Perhaps get a faulty car and first take it to a government inspection station or a reputable garage, who will tell you exactly what faults it has. Then take the car to Garage X, posing as an ordinary customer, not telling them that you are a journalist. When they say they have completed the repairs, take the car back to the original garage that you trust, and get a report from them on whether or not the repairs have been done. You or your colleagues will need to do this several times before you can be sure that Garage X really is cheating people, not just making mistakes in its work. Then you should confront the Garage X owner with your evidence and ask him to explain.

A word of warning here: do not encourage anyone to break the law. In some countries, such as the United States, this is called "entrapment" and is illegal. For example, if you hear that Mister Y is taking bribes to issue building permits, you must not go up to Mr Y posing as a builder and offer him money - that may be illegal. However, you can go up to Mr Y and ask for a permit and explain that you need it urgently. If he then asks for a bribe, you have your story.

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Publication

If your newspaper, radio or television station is in competition with other news organisations, you will usually try to keep your investigation secret until it is published or broadcast. This is because you may spend many days or even weeks of work on a story, and do not want to give your competitors all your work for free.

It is occasionally also important to keep it secret from people at the centre of your investigation who will be exposed for incompetence, corruption or a crime. Although, as we discussed earlier, you should eventually interview the people who have been accused, you should not give them too long before you publish the story. If you do, they might threaten you, escape or take out a court injunction stopping publication. (See "Silencing writs" in Chapter 70: Defamation.)

The ideal investigation follows these steps:

  1. Build up facts until there is no doubt;
  2. Interview any people who seem to be doing wrong;
  3. Write the story;
  4. Make a final check with your lawyer to make sure your story is legally safe;
  5. Publish.

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Incomplete stories

You may occasionally find that, however hard and long you try, you cannot get all the pieces in the jigsaw. Perhaps some documents are missing, hidden or they cannot be released; perhaps someone refuses to comment. You will have to decide whether or not to publish the incomplete story. Consult with your superiors and lawyer before making the decision.

You will occasionally find that publishing an incomplete story helps to unearth some missing details. A reader or listener may come forward with the information you need. The person who would not comment may realise that silence is no longer useful.

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Follow-ups

The story should not end with publication or broadcast. If you have exposed something wrong, you must check to see what is done by people with authority to put it right. Are the police going to press charges against the rubbish dump manager for taking bribes? Will the Minister of Health do anything about the poisonous waste left in the dump? Then you can write a series of follow-up stories, referring back to your original article or documentary.

If you have exposed a defect which will take longer to correct, make a note in your newsroom diary to check perhaps a week, a month or a year later. For example, if you have written a story showing that schools in certain provinces have been starved of teaching staff because of Education Department inefficiency, first find out what the Minister of Education intends to do about it. And perhaps six months later check again if the Minister has supplied the necessary teachers.

If other news organisations in your area or country also do investigative reporting, you will occasionally find that they have their own exclusive story exposing some wrongdoing.

It may be so important that your organisation has to use that story too. In such a case, look for a good angle to follow up. The most usual one is to ask the people under investigation for their reaction, or ask people responsible for putting the situation right - such as the police or a minister - what are they going to do about the situation which has been exposed.

From the moment it is published or broadcast, the competition's story is public property, so follow it up if it seems worthwhile. But remember, your competitor may not have checked their facts properly. Do not trust them. You cannot be sure that their story is true unless you check the facts again yourself. Some quick visits or telephone calls may be all that is needed.

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TO SUMMARISE:

Investigative journalists need all the skills of general reporting, but especially:

  • an alert mind to recognise story ideas and important facts which people are trying to hide
  • an ordered mind to make notes, file information and fit lots of facts together
  • patience to keep digging for information
  • good contacts throughout society
  • courage to withstand threats from people you are investigating

Become familiar with all the different places you can get information, such as company registers and court records

As well as accumulating information, you must also gather supporting evidence in case your story is challenged

Double-check everything you do, from the information you gather to the way you write your final story

This is the end of the second part of this three-part section on investigative reporting. If you now want to read on, follow this link to the third section, Chapter 41: Investigative Reporting writing techniques

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Index to Chapter 40
  1. Contacts
  2. Listen
  3. Interviewing
  4. Make notes
  5. Protecting documents
  6. Teamwork
  7. Sources of information
  8. Gathering evidence
  9. Publication
  10. Incomplete stories
  11. Follow-ups
  12. To summarise
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