Qualities of an investigative reporter
Says South Africa-based Evelyn Groenink: “Let’s face it, most investigative journalists will never be played by Robert Redford or Cate Blanchett in a Hollywood movie, no matter how brave and important the work they did or do! Most investigative journalism is a thankless endeavour, time- and energy-consuming, that will get your editor impatient and powerful people annoyed with you.
If you like a stable income with regular promotions; if your deepest wish is a management position with matching salary and if you enjoy being invited to dinners and parties given by VIPs in your country or community, then investigative journalism is probably not for you. But if you enjoy challenges, have a passion for truth and justice, and want to serve your readership or audience with stories that matter, no matter how much time and energy it costs you – and even if some powerful people will end up with maybe less-thanfriendly feelings towards you – then, by all means, go for it!”
Asking questions is where investigative journalism starts. The questions can be about events in the news, or about things you see or hear about in your day-to-day life.
As we’ve noted, many newsrooms operate on limited resources and all run on tight deadlines. So an investigative idea you mention at a news conference won’t always be instantly adopted, particularly if it is un-formed and vague. You need to take the initiative, do your own preliminary checking and shape the idea into a solid story plan. If your newsroom still isn’t interested, you may need to take further initiative in identifying support (such as an investigative grant) for the work needed. (See Chapters 2-3.)
Investigative reporting takes time and, because of the legal risks it often carries, must be verified down to the smallest detail. So you need to become a careful planner to make the best use of your time, and obsessive about checking and re-checking everything you discover, and making sure your story fits together.
An investigation can take unexpected turns. Sometimes the question you began by asking turns out to be a dead-end, or opens the door on another, far more interesting but less obvious question. You need to be prepared to rethink and redesign your research when this happens, and not stay wedded to your first ideas.
Movies often portray the investigative reporter as a ‘lone wolf.’ Sometimes, there are situations where secrecy is so important that a story cannot be shared with others until certain safeguards are in place. But very often the best stories come out of a cooperative effort that uses all the available skills in (and even outside) the newsroom. An investigative story may call upon knowledge of anything from science and health to economics and sociology, and no one journalist, however strong their general knowledge, can be an expert in all these. For example, if you are following a paper trail through company audits and no-one in the newsroom has a sophisticated grasp of accounting, you’ll need to identify an expert who can help you. So good contacts and networking form part of your teamwork. And you’ll need to be a good enough communicator to ensure that the team understands the purpose of the story and the standards (accuracy, honesty, confidentiality) expected of everybody on it.
This doesn’t mean you have to have a degree in journalism. But you need enough of either training or experience, or both, to know how to identify sources, plan story research, conduct good interviews (and sense when an answer doesn’t ring true), and write accurately and informatively. You also need to know when you are out of your depth, and have the humility to ask for advice or help. If you are relatively inexperienced, good teamworking (again) will help you to tap into the skills of others when this happens. Sometimes, people who don’t have a reporting background do have these skills. Researchers and community workers have often also been trained to interview and identify and sift facts, although they may need the help of newsroom workers to package a story attractively and accessibly for readers, listeners or viewers. We’ll look at effective writing and storytelling techniques in Chapter 7.
Understanding the context of your investigation can help you avoid dead-ends and spot relevant facts and questions. But if your investigation takes you into an unfamiliar area, you must be able to familiarise yourself with at least the background, conventions, terminology, role-players and issues of that area quickly. The ability to have a searching, informative conversation with an expert, use computer search engines, or locate and skim-read useful books are all vital here. Above all, you must read – everything, whenever you have the time. You never know when a bit of background will prove useful for your work.
Investigative reporting will bring you up against all kinds of obstacles, from sources who disappear and records that don’t exist, to editors who want to can the story because it is taking too long or costing too much. Only your own motivation and belief that it is a worthwhile story will carry you through what is often a slow process of discovery.
Investigative stories may put the security, jobs or even lives of sources at risk. They also risk putting their subjects at similar risk if reckless accusations are made. So an investigative reporter needs to have a strong, explicitly thought-out set of personal ethics, to ensure that sources and subjects are treated respectfully and as far as possible protected from harm. In addition, newsrooms that support investigative stories need to be guided by ethical codes and have a process in place for discussing and resolving ethical dilemmas. Sometimes public trust is your best protection, and you lose this if you behave unethically. More on this in Chapter 8.
Gossips do not make good investigative reporters. As we’ve seen, loose talk can put the investigation – and lives – at risk. But in addition, it can tip off commercial rivals who will then scoop your story, or alert interviewees before you get a chance to talk to them. In a whole range of ways, talking too much can sabotage the story.
IJ’s are often attacked as ‘unpatriotic’, but we do not see our role like that. We believe that what we investigate and discover is driven by concern for the public interest and what will make our community better. Zambia-based Edem Djokotoe warns: “You might have the best research and writing skills in the world, but if you aren’t driven by personal convictions to contribute your skills to your society as a citizen, your story will lack purpose and heart.”
It isn’t only subjects and sources that are at risk. Reporters may be threatened with legal action or violence, jailed, or even assassinated for their investigations. In the face of these risks, you may succumb to pressure and censor yourself. You need to believe in what you’re doing, have the courage to carry on, and if possible have personal and professional support structures (for example, family or partner, religious community, counsellor, legal advisor, supportive editor and team) in place for when times get tough.