Beyond The Surface: What Every Investigative Reporter Needs To Know BY CITIZEN AGBA JALINGO

In Breaking News, Education, News
Investigative Journalism (Credit: Medium.com)

Being a presentation at the one-day workshop on Data Journalism for the extractive sector organised by Policy Alert.

Due to diverse interpretation, to better understand what investigative reporting is, it may be best to start by explaining what it is not.

It is vaguely said that all reporting is investigative. After all, journalists routinely dig for facts. They ask questions. They get information. They “investigate.” But is this really the case? In the day-to-day practice of journalism, how deep do reporters really dig? How probing are their questions? And how complete or original is the information that they present?

What Is Not Investigative Journalism:

i. If reporters attend a press conference and then write about it, they cannot be said to be doing investigative reporting.

ii. If they interview those wounded in a police operation and then report what they have been told, that is not investigative journalism either.

iii. Leak journalism is not investigative reporting. That is where public officials, police and intelligence agents or politicians selectively “leak” or release secret information or files in order to promote their own interests. An investigation can begin from a leak, but journalists must do their own digging, verify the information and provide context. Unless they do so, their reports will be distorted and incomplete. They will also be allowing themselves to be used to manipulate public opinion and to advance the agenda of individuals, rather than the public interest.

iv. Paparazzi journalism is not investigative journalism. Investigative journalism’s focus is not private lives, it is the public good.

v. Daily news coverage is usually not probing or investigative, it is mainly reactive. It reports mainly what officials or institutions say as well as other people’s responses to what has been previously said.

vi. Much of what we consider “news” are reports on official statements or reactions to official statements.

vii. Daily journalism is also mainly about events that reporters have witnessed or interviewed witnesses about; such as a train collision, a demonstration, a criminal being arrested.

viii. Daily news reporters seldom decide on their own what or who they cover. They often do not initiate story ideas. They are usually logged for assignments.

xi. Unfolding events and the daily schedule of news briefings and press conferences determine what makes it to the daily newspaper, the newscast or the web.

What You Need To Know About Investigative Reporting:

a. Investigative reporting does not just report the information that has been given out by others; whether it is government, political parties, companies or advocacy groups. It is reporting that relies on the journalist’s own enterprise and initiative.

b. Investigative reporting means journalists go beyond what they have seen and what has been said to unearth more facts and to provide something new and previously unknown.

c. Investigative reporting often involves digging up what is secret or hidden.

d. Investigative reporting entails the use of multiple sources; both human and documentary, that together paint a picture of wrongdoing or abuse.

e. Investigative reporting requires verification and corroboration of every piece of information, even if these come from sources that are considered reliable or authoritative. Reporting based on a single source cannot be considered investigative.

f. Using information obtained from sources during the course of investigation, for extortion is not investigative journalism. Reporters who do this, taint the name of investigative journalism and do damage to its tradition and reputation.

g. Investigative journalism is also sometimes confused with stalking powerful or well-known people and writing intimate details about their private lives, uncovering such things as love affairs or other dark secrets. It is true that investigative reporters sometimes uncover details on the private lives of individuals, but such investigations are ethical only when there is a clear public interest in exposure.

h. Investigative reporting is watchdog journalism. It aims to check the abuses of those who have wealth and power. It exposes wrongdoing so it can be corrected, not because journalists and their patrons benefit from the exposure.

i. Investigative journalism strikes through the mask and lifts the veil of secrecy to go beyond what is publicly proclaimed and expose the lies and hypocrisy of those who wield power.

j. Most of the time, investigative journalism focuses on how laws and regulations are violated. It compares how organizations work against how they are supposed to work. It exposes how and why individuals and institutions fail and report when things go wrong, who is responsible, how the wrongdoing was done and its consequences.

k. The best investigative reports expose not just individual, but systemic failures. They show how individual wrongs are part of a larger pattern of negligence or abuse and the systems that make these possible. They examine where the system went wrong and show who suffer from the mistakes.

l. Investigative journalism probes not just what is criminal or illegal, but also what may be legal and above board but nonetheless causes harm.

m. Investigative journalism is hazardous. Nobody, group of people or organization, wants their wrong doing to be unearthed. Not even the investigator. So there are very high chances of hazards both before, on the job and after the job. The more investigations a reporter carries out, the more risks you hedge around yourself, family and loved ones and even your media group. But for those who are cut out for this field, these fears evaporate at the alter of the call to defend public interest.

So on a whole, a classic investigative report will first provide;

i. Previously unknown information.

ii. Secondly, the report will be a product of the journalist’s own initiative.

iii. It will require a significant investment of time and effort.

iv. Investigative reporting requires painstaking work. It is not something that can be done overnight.

v. It means talking to a range of sources, obtaining documents when they are available, and spending weeks, even months to piece a story together.

vi. And there must be a clear public interest in the investigation. This last element, the public interest, is key to investigative reporting.

vii. Investigative journalists uncover information because they know that such information is crucial to the public and the public has the right to know.

viii. Investigative reporters do not reveal secret facts merely for the thrill of doing so or the prospect of winning an award.

ix. They do not dig for the dirt just to sell newspapers or to make profits for their media organizations.

x. Their work must be motivated by a desire to expose wrongdoing so the public may know about it.

xi. They also hope that once the wrongdoing is exposed and publicized, it will eventually be corrected.

Techniques Of Investigative Reporting:

At the most basic level, investigative journalism has a set of research and reporting techniques that are used to uncover information. A few of these techniques include:

1. Following the paper trail: Documents are at the heart of investigative reporting. Often, they provide proof or clues on the wrongdoing that journalists wish to expose. Documents can corroborate or disprove the information that is given by human sources. Investigative reporters analyze the documents they obtain and use the information they find there to piece their stories together. It is difficult, although not impossible, to do investigations without some sort of paper trail. Many journalists begin by unearthing documents even before they do their interviews. This is because documents provide them the background, the context and the detailed information they need so they can ask more probing questions from their sources. Often documents give leads on how the investigation can go forward. They give clues on how the journalist should proceed. A signature on a government contract, for example, points to the person who is responsible for that contract and who the journalist ought to interview. Sometimes documents cite other documents, thereby providing clues on what other documents exist that journalists can then obtain.

2. Following the people trail: People are as important as paper in a journalistic investigation. They can talk, answer questions and other things that documents cannot do. They can provide history, background, colour and anecdotes that spice up a story and give it depth. They also lead to other documents and to other people who may be vital to an investigation. Journalists talk to a range of sources in the course of their investigations. These could be official sources, such as government or corporate officials or representatives. They could be private individuals involved in the case the journalist is probing. They could be victims of crime or disaster, human traffickers, drug dealers or arms sellers. Sometimes they are eyewitnesses to a crime, an accident or a calamity. They could be classmates, neighbours, relatives or friends of a politician who has amassed wealth that cannot be explained by what he earns. Journalistic sources are often also experts, scientists, lawyers, accountants, who can explain the technical issues and make an impartial or disinterested appraisal of available facts. In short, journalists interview just about anyone who can give information on the subject they are investigating.

3. Following the electronic trail: Increasingly, investigative journalists are using the Internet to do research on just about any topic they are investigating. The Internet, with its vast resources, is a mine of information. Familiarity with online research techniques is now a requisite for investigations.

There are many more techniques of this job but let me end this intervention here by emphasizing again that, there is no single definition of investigative reporting. Journalists in different countries build their own investigative traditions based on local practices, shared standards and norms and the limits of what they are allowed to publish or air. But whatever journalistic tradition they come from, investigative reporters have always considered themselves as guardians of the public interest. By exposing wrongdoing and failure, they aim to hold the powerful accountable for their actions. And that is the spirit that should possess every aspiring investigative reporter.

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