Chapter 41: Investigative reporting, writing techniques

Chapter 41: Investigative reporting, writing techniques

In this, the final of the three chapters on investigative journalism, 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.


Investigative reporters must take special care when writing a story. This is because investigative stories usually make someone appear either bad or stupid, accusations which can lead to legal action against you for defamation. You will probably be safe if your story is true and in the public interest. But it can lose the protection of the law if there are serious errors. Someone - probably the people your story exposes as corrupt, dishonest or simply incompetent - will be looking closely for mistakes to attack you on. So you must take extra care. (For more on the risks of defamation, see Chapter 69: Defamation.)


Writing stories or scripts based on investigative journalism requires all the skills you need for general journalism. However, given the risks you will face in investigative journalism, a few of the core rules are worth stressing again here:

Stick to facts

You will be much safer if you stick to facts which you can prove are true. That is why you check your facts and get confirmation for each one.

As you write, stop at each new important fact and say to yourself: "Is this true?" Then say: "Have I confirmed it with another source?"

Do not speculate (i.e. write things which might be true, but which you cannot prove). If you do not have all the facts you would like, you may have to be satisfied with a lesser story, as long as it makes sense and contains no errors.

Avoid personal comment

Do not put in your personal opinions. You may be writing a story about someone who has cheated old people out of their life savings. You may hate this man, but you must not say it. You might believe he is evil, but you should not say that either. If you show in your story that you hate this man, that could be seen as malice, which will destroy your defence against defamation.

Just show your readers and listeners the facts. If the man is bad, the facts will lead your audience to that conclusion without you telling them what to think.

Keep your language simple

Keep your sentences short and your language simple and concise. Some investigations will reveal some very complicated facts, perhaps because the person under suspicion has tried very cleverly to hide their wrongdoing. You must simplify this for your readers or listeners, so they get a clear picture of what has happened.

Avoid vague words

Wherever possible, avoid using vague words, such as "a large amount" or "some time later". Words like this show that you do not have accurate details - otherwise you would use them. Sometimes this is unavoidable, but vague words will usually take the strength out of a story.

If you know the man cheated the old people out of $110,854, write that figure somewhere in the story (but not, obviously, in the first few paragraphs, where you should say "more than $100,000").

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Check your work

You should check your work at each stage and when you have finished, double check everything again.

Ask yourself again: "Are these facts correct and confirmed?" If you have enough time, put the story to one side for a few hours, then return to it with a fresh view, seeing it as a reader or listener might.

Ask a colleague to read the story and try to find errors. Do not be upset if they expose errors or big gaps in information. It is better to be told now by a colleague than later in a defamation case.

Wherever possible, show the story to your organisation's lawyer, who will bring a fresh mind to the story and spot any legal problems which might arise.

If anyone recommends changes, do not let them write the changes themselves. They will not know the case as well as you do. Get them to explain what is wrong, rewrite that part yourself, then ask if it is right. Never settle for anything you are not completely happy with.

One final check worth making is to ask yourself: "Is there any way I have identified my confidential sources, even though I promised to keep them secret?" Try to read the story as if you are one of the people who has been accused of incompetence or corruption. See if they would be able to identify any of your confidential sources from what you have written. If there is any risk at all, change the story to protect your sources.

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Can you use any illustrations to make your story more interesting? Perhaps you can use pictures of the victims looking sad, or someone at the scene of an alleged crime.

In complicated stories, a diagram might help to show how the pieces fit together. For example, in a story involving related companies, you should include a simple box diagram showing with lines and arrows how the companies are related. If your organisation has a graphic artist, ask them for help.

In a story about how a government department has been wasting taxpayers' money, you might use a graph to show how the money has disappeared over the years.

If you have a really important document to support your story, include the relevant sections of that document as an illustration. On television, you can type quotations from the document across the screen as the story is being read out.

On radio and television, use the actual tapes of interviews if you have them. These will add variety and also act as confirmation.

However, if your interviewee wants to remain anonymous, perhaps film them in silhouette or change the sound of their voice electronically.

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However carefully you write your story to make it safe, a sub-editor may not understand exactly why you use certain words or describe something in a certain way. The sub-editor may write a headline which is wrong or possible defamatory.

Having spent a lot of time working on the story, do not abandon it at this final stage. Discuss possible headlines with the sub-editor, until both of you are satisfied you have done the best job possible.

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Some words of warning

As we have said several times in these chapters, there are many dangers to investigative reporting. The greatest danger is that you will do or write something which will allow the person under suspicion to take you to court for defamation or on some other charge. So remember the following:

Sub judice reporting

It may happen that a story you are investigating is also being dealt with by a court. In most countries, a matter before a court is said to be sub judice and there are limits on what can be reported about it, beyond what is said in the court.

Be very careful when covering any sub judice matters. Consult your editor or lawyer for advice. If you make the wrong decision, you could be charged with contempt of court. (See Chapter 64: The rules of court reporting.)


If someone complains about a mistake after the story is published or broadcast, never issue an immediate apology or correction without talking first to your editor and lawyer. They will decide what action to take.

Payments for stories

Sometimes people will ask to be paid for their information. Try to avoid this, but sometimes it is necessary, even if it is a few dollars for a tip-off.

However, never pay for something which might have involved criminal activity. For example, if someone asks for $100 to provide a document, then they steal that document, you could be charged as an accomplice to theft. Any payment could be seen as encouraging a crime.

Concealing crimes

Your informant may tell you that they have committed a crime, perhaps that they broke into an office to steal a photograph as proof of corruption. You should never knowingly hide a criminal from the law. If you think that your informant is involved in criminal activities, tell them at the beginning that you do not wish to know anything about it. Talk only about the facts you need to know for your story.

A final warning

You may live in a country where the media are controlled and the government will not allow any real investigative reporting. You and your editor must decide whether or not you should take the risk of carrying out investigative reporting which the government will not like, and may punish you for. But journalists throughout the world have often had to make such decisions. Some have paid the price with imprisonment or death. You must decide in each case whether the issue is worth the risk.

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Investigative journalism is needed to uncover important stories which people want to hide

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

You must protect confidential sources of information

Always consult a lawyer if you have any worries about the legality of what you are doing or writing

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

Work within the law

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>>go to next chapter

Index to Chapter 41
  1. Writing
  2. Check your work
  3. Illustrations
  4. Headlines
  5. Some words of warning
  6. A final warning
  7. To summarise
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