Chapter 39: Introduction to investigative reporting

In this, the first of the three chapters on investigative journalism, we discuss why there is a need for investigative reporting and we state some basic principles. In the following chapters we give practical advice on how to set about the task and on how to write your stories or present your reports. We conclude with advice on some ethical and legal problems you may meet along the way.

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What is investigative journalism?

Investigative journalism is finding, reporting and presenting news which other people try to hide. It is very similar to standard news reporting, except that the people at the centre of the story will usually not help you and may even try to stop you doing your job.

The job of journalists is to let people know what is going on in the community, the society and the world around them. Journalists do this by finding facts and telling them to their readers or listeners.

In much of their work, the facts are easy to find in such places as the courts and parliaments, disasters, public meetings, churches and sporting events. People are usually happy to provide journalists with news. Indeed, in many countries, thousands of people work full time in public relations, giving statements, comments, press releases and other forms of information to journalists.

Throughout the world, though, there are still a lot of things happening which people want to keep secret. In most cases these are private things which have no impact on other people - such as relations within a family or a bad report from school. These personal things can remain secret.

In many other cases, governments, companies, organisations and individuals try to hide decisions or events which affect other people. When a journalist tries to report on matters which somebody wants to keep secret, this is investigative journalism.

The great British newspaper publisher Lord Northcliffe once said: “News is what somebody, somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.”

There are several reasons why societies need investigative journalism. They include:

  • People have a right to know about the society in which they live. They have a right to know about decisions which may affect them, even if people in power want to keep them secret.
  • People in power - whether in government, the world of commerce, or any other group in society - can abuse that power. They can be corrupt, steal money, break laws and do all sorts of things which harm other people. They might just be incompetent and unable to do their job properly. They will usually try to keep this knowledge secret. Journalists try to expose such abuse.
  • Journalists also have a duty to watch how well people in power perform their jobs, especially those who have been elected to public office. Journalists should constantly ask whether such people are keeping their election promises. Politicians and others who are not keeping their promises may try to hide the fact; journalists should try to expose it.

Of course, journalists are not the only people in society who should expose incompetence, corruption, lies and broken promises. We also have parliaments, councils, courts, commissions, the police and other authorities. The police often take people to court for breaking laws. But sometimes they do not have the time, staff or skills to catch and correct every case of abuse. Also, they cannot do anything against people who behave badly without actually breaking any laws.

So journalists have a role as well. The difference is that when journalists expose wrongdoing, they cannot punish people. Journalists can only bring wrongdoing into the light of public attention and hope that society will do the rest, to punish wrongdoers or to change a system which is at fault.

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Who should we investigate?

Journalists should be able to expose abuse, corruption and criminal activities in all fields of public life, but the main areas include the following:

Governments

These range from local councils to national parliaments and foreign governments. Sometimes politicians and public servants are actually corrupt and should be exposed and removed from office. But often they hide a decision because they know the public may not like it. They might keep a deal they have made with a foreign timber company secret because it will harm the environment or destroy people's homes. Often politicians and public servants spend so long in office that they forget that the public has the right to know what is happening. If the public elects people to office and gives them taxes and other forms of wealth to administer, the public has the right to know what they are doing. The electors should also know so that they can decide how to vote at the next election.

Companies

Some companies break the law and should be exposed. But companies usually like to keep activities secret for other reasons. Perhaps they have made a mistake or lost money. Perhaps they do not want competitors to steal their secrets or they do not want people to oppose a development they are planning. However, even private companies have some responsibility towards the public. Companies are part of each society. They usually make some use of natural resources, take money from customers and shareholders, provide jobs for people and use services provided by all taxpayers. Where their activities affect the rest of the community, the community has a right to know what they are doing.

Criminals

Although governments and companies can be corrupt, criminals make their living at it. They act like leeches on the community, so your readers and listeners have the right to know about them. Fighting crime is, of course, mainly the job of the police and legal system. But sometimes they do not have enough resources to do their jobs properly. Sometimes the law itself limits their powers. Also, the police and judiciary can sometimes be corrupt themselves. So journalists - like every law-abiding citizen - have the duty to expose wrongdoing.

There are, of course, all sorts of other individuals and organisations who like to hide things which affect the public. A charity may try to hide the fact that it is not doing a good job with money it has been given. A football club might be secretly negotiating to move its ground against the wishes of its fans. A man might be selling coloured water as a cure for every illness. All these things need to be exposed so that the public can make up its mind whether to support them or not.

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Some basic principles

Let us discuss some basic rules about investigative reporting before we move on to the practical techniques.

News value

Most newspapers, radio and television stations get a lot of requests from people to "investigate" some alleged wrongdoing. In many cases these are silly matters, lies or hoaxes. But you should spend some time on each tip-off, to decide whether or not it will make a story.

You should judge all topics for investigative reporting on the criteria for what makes news. Is it new, unusual, interesting, significant and about people? Sometimes, the story might only affect one person and be so trivial that it is not worth following up. Remember you have limited time and resources, so you cannot follow every story idea. Use your news judgment.

Keep your eyes and ears open

Always be on the lookout for possible stories. Sometimes people will come to you with tip-offs, but often you must discover the stories yourself. Story ideas can come from what you read or overhear or even a sudden thought while you are brushing your teeth. Good investigative reporters do not let any possible story clues escape. They write them down because they might come in useful later.

Listen to casual conversations and rumour, on the bus, in the street or in a club. Careless words give the first clues to something wrong, but never write a story based only on talk you have overheard or on rumour.

Get the facts

Because investigative reporting means digging up hidden facts, your job will not be as easy as reporting court or a public meeting. People will try to hide things from you. You must gather as many relevant facts as you can, from as many people as possible. Your facts must be accurate, so always check them.

And do not expect dramatic results. Real life journalism is seldom like the stories you see in films. Most investigations need many hours of work gathering lots and lots of small details. You and your editor must realise this. If you are not given enough time, you may not be able to do any successful investigative reporting.

Fit the facts together

As you gather the facts, fit them together to make sure that they make sense. Investigative reporting is often like doing a jigsaw. At the beginning you have a jumble of pieces. Only slowly will they emerge as a picture. Unlike a jigsaw puzzle, you will not have all the pieces at the beginning. You have to recognise which pieces are missing then go and find them.

Check the facts

Remember you are trying to find information which some people want to keep secret. They will not help you in your investigation, so you cannot check your facts with them. They will probably oppose you and look for mistakes in everything you write or broadcast. If you make a mistake, they will probably take you to court. You must always check your facts. Take a tip from the most famous example of investigative reporting, the so-called Watergate Affair. The Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein investigated a crime which eventually led to the downfall of US President Richard Nixon. They knew their enemies would be waiting for them to make a mistake, so they made it a rule that they would never use any fact unless it was confirmed by two sources. This is a good rule to try to follow.

However, remember that many people you might interview about corruption could be corrupt themselves. Criminals lie, so be suspicious of what you are told - and check their words with someone else, preferably someone you trust.

Evidence

In addition to gathering facts, you should also gather evidence to support those facts. This is especially important in case you are taken to court for defamation as a result of your investigation. Courts will only accept facts which can be proved. If someone tells you something on the record, you can show the court your notes, but it would also be useful to get a signed statutory declaration from them. This is a kind of legal statement given under oath. Original documents will usually be accepted as evidence, but photocopies may not, unless they are supported by evidence from the owner of the original, who may not choose to help you.

Confidential sources

When investigating corruption or abuse, you will meet people who will only give you information if you promise never to reveal their identity. This is very common in criminal matters, where people are scared of pay-back.

You can agree to these conditions but remember, sometime in the future a judge examining the same matter in court may order you to reveal the name of such a confidential source of information. You will be breaking the law if you refuse to name your source, and could go to jail for contempt.

If you promise to protect a confidential source, you must do so until the source himself or herself releases you from that promise. So if you are not prepared to go to jail to protect a source, do not promise in the first place. (For a full discussion of this issue, see Chapter 60: Sources and confidentiality.)

Threats

People may threaten you to try to stop your work. This could be a threat of physical harm or a threat by a company to stop advertising with your newspaper or station. It could even by a vague threat to "do something" to you. Most threats are never carried out. The people making them realise that harming you will only make their situation worse.

But all threats should be reported immediately to your editor or your organisation's lawyer. This will share the burden of worry with someone objective. It will also act as extra protection if the person making the threat knows that it is public knowledge. If you have a witness to the threat, you might be able to include it in your eventual story, after getting legal advice.

Investigative journalism always leads to some unpleasant conflict. If you cannot cope with conflict, stay out of investigative journalism (see Chapter 58: Pressures on journalists).

Work within the law

Journalists have no special rights in law, even when investigating corruption. Unlike the police, journalists cannot listen in to other people's telephone calls or open their letters. Journalists cannot enter premises against a person's wish.

You must work within the law, but more than that, you should not use any unethical methods of getting information. For example, you should not pretend to be someone to whom people feel obliged to give information, such as a police officer or a government official.

However, there are situations where you do not have to tell people that you are a journalist when gathering information. We will discuss those in the next chapter.

If you have any doubts about legal matters, consult your editor or your organisation's lawyer.

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TO SUMMARISE:

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

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

This is the end of the first part of this three-part section on investigative reporting. If you now want to read on, follow this link to the second section, Chapter 40: Investigative reporting in practice.

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Index to Chapter 39
  1. What is investigative journalism?
  2. Who should we investigate?
  3. Some basic principles
  4. To summarise
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