“However much we try to refine our methods, there’s a hell of a lot of luck in this.” (Stephen Grey)
Never forget that the usefulness of human sources depends not only on who they are, but also on your skill as a reporter in building a relationship of trust, asking good questions and recording answers with meticulous accuracy. Investigation is one type of reporting where – whether or not you can use it in court – you should record, and not simply note, your interactions with sources.
Your starting point – always – is listing the main role players in your story and planning how you will interview them. We’ll look in more detail at investigative interviewing in Chapter 5.
We have already seen that the most important, reliable and vivid sources are usually witnesses: the people who have experienced or are otherwise directly involved in a story. You begin to identify witnesses by combing previous accounts of your topic for the names of people who were involved, or simply on the scene. If people claim to have been present or involved, you must of course verify that they were. Where you experienced parts of the story, you also count as a witness for what you saw. Sometimes, when reporting on the circumstances you have observed at a story scene, you are the most important witness. For example, if you are conducting lifestyle checks on a community leader, enter her home, and see expensive leather furniture and a flat-screen TV in what looks from outside like a humble cottage, you can report that.
But often an investigative project benefits from doing your most important interviews at a later stage, when you are in possession of more information and background and can frame your questions very precisely. So there are other people you need to find first – and some of them, you may not even know at this early stage. What follows, provides some tips.
Look for people currently associated with the subject (e.g. other company officers or shareholders, family members, business associates, employees or clients). Consider organisations in which the subject is active such as sports clubs, religious organisations or charities. Remember that such people, because they are in some kind of relationship with the subject, will have an attitude towards him or her. Factor this into your enquiries.
Look for people who were previously associated with the subject: ex-partners in business, former spouses, employees, doctors, teachers etc. Remember, some professionals may have legal or ethical obligations of confidentiality, even after they have left a job. People with whom the subject was in a known dispute or in litigation can be very important witnesses, but, again, remember that their emotions and attitudes will colour what they tell you.
Development researcher Joe Hanlon calls this “finding the woman who knows.” Start with an obvious contact or acknowledged expert in the broad field, and ask this person to refer you to someone with more detailed knowledge of your precise area of enquiry. Ask that contact, in turn, for an even more specialised referral. At the end of such a chain – sometimes after only three or four phone calls – you may well find someone who worked on the project or with the person you are investigating. This is particularly true in developing countries, where social and professional circles are small, and everybody knows everybody else – one of the advantages of doing research in Africa!
There are experts on almost everything. After the Tsunami in late 2004, every television and radio station in the world managed to find their own expert on extreme weather. There are technical experts, historians, research scientists, lawyers and engineers and many more. When dealing with corporate affairs (for example, the activities of multinationals) it is particularly important to identify the right expert: what a local accountant can tell you will be very limited.
What’s more, experts inhabit their own – often transnational – communities, so one expert will often lead you to another. Make sure you have done solid preliminary research before you talk to your chosen expert, so that your questions are clear and reasonably well-informed. An expert does not expect you to know as much as he or she does, but it is insulting to go in unprepared.
However, it is quite legitimate to ask for explanations in layman’s language, so that you can explain things better to your readers. Always be careful to record what experts tell you accurately. It is acceptable to ask: “Is this correct?” And never twist, omit or distort what they tell you because it does not fit your hypothesis.
You can find experts by looking at sources quoted on the Internet, in other materials on your subject, or through books they have written on the subject. Publishers can often provide contact addresses for their expert authors. Some experts – for example the forensic accountants employed by the police to trace paper trails of corruption or drugs money – operate as paid consultants. They are expensive, and what they can discuss with the media is limited by the constraints of client confidentiality.
A far closer, more affordable and accessible source is often your local university. If you are seeking expertise on mining, university departments of mining, engineering, mineral sciences and environment may all employ people who can help you. This may involve time fighting your way through sometimes unhelpful switchboard operators or departmental administrators. But local experts often have advantages over the star name you have found on the Internet. They are accessible; you can meet them face-to-face; they may speak in your local language and they can certainly relate what they tell you to the local context.
In most countries with a functioning central government, government departments and experts are regarded as reliable sources of information. There is a long history of apparent impartiality in scientific reports, accurate minutes of meetings, court proceedings and registrations.
But in major and controversial stories, this can prove a naive and dangerous assumption. A state-employed expert is just as likely to be right or wrong as any other expert – and in some cases may be under pressure from his employer to present information in a particular light. As with any other sources, consider the context and possible motives when you weigh up the information they give you.
However, such insiders are often extremely knowledgeable, and assuming they are always biased could be as mistaken as assuming they are always correct and impartial. Simply test the likelihood of what they tell you using a second informed source. It is also sometimes possible to ask a government department for an unofficial off-the-record briefing from one of their specialists, and this can provide extensive background, although you cannot quote it in your story.
We tend to think of these bodies as sources of written reports and policies only. But they can also provide useful contacts, both in their home country and in the countries in which they operate. They are under no obligation to help you, but are often extremely sympathetic if approached correctly, particularly if your enquiries relate to an issue where they have strong policies.
But precisely for this reason, (like all other organisations) donor bodies and other types of agencies have their own policies and principles, as well as sometimes being firmly guided by the policies of their home governments or backing organisations. (For example, some European countries have donor foundations run by parties of the political Right, or the Centrists, or the Left. When you interview a representative of one of these agencies, what you hear will relate to one of these broader political perspectives.)
Research will allow you to put their comments and information in context, and judge whether you also need to conduct a balancing interview with another source.
Allow time for these kinds of interviews, as often international agency representatives have to seek permission before they can talk to the media. And be sure to credit the individual and organisation for the help they provided.
Investigative reporting can sometimes be risky, and in some countries or for some topics the risks for the journalist can include arrest or assassination. So often working discreetly (if not actually ‘underground’) is important. But sometimes you can ‘shake out’ contacts by actually letting it be known that you are working on a topic, or already possess certain information. Sometimes you can do this informally, by using your networks of contacts; sometimes by publishing a preliminary, sketchy story on the investigative project. At that point, new people may volunteer additional information, or previously reluctant sources may come forward to ‘correct’ your story. Always weigh up the pros and cons of this tactic carefully; it can backfire. An equally possible outcome is that you alert people to your scrutiny, and they rush to hide evidence, silence sources or take pre-emptive action against you!
Sometimes reading these can lead you to ‘whistleblowers’: discontented employees with dirt to share on their organisation. Many companies, organisations and government departments in the developed world have unofficial electronic meeting ‘rooms’ where critical opinions and information might be shared. It also happens in the few African countries where Internet use is well developed, such as South Africa. But do not take information directly from such sites into your story. You need to verify that the person is genuine and can support what they say; try to meet the source or conduct other checks.
Every journalist builds up networks. Often this happens naturally, in the course of reporting. But if you are working on a specific investigative project, you need to work proactively to build up a network relevant for your story. Where do people involved in what you’re investigating socialise? Do they live in a particular suburb? Shop at a particular store or mall? (Again, the smaller professional circles in many African countries make these slightly easier questions to answer than they might be in a huge city such as New York.) Go to those places, and get talking to people, gradually narrowing in on people associated with areas of, or individuals involved in, your investigation. You can glean a great deal of background knowledge just from chatting and observing. You can ‘house’ the key role player: find out exactly where (and how) he or she lives. But think carefully about both ethics and the security needs of your investigation before you take decisions on revealing your identity and conducting on-the-record conversations with targeted individuals.
Don’t neglect your journalistic colleagues as sources of contacts from their personal networks. If rivalry on a story is intense, you may not wish to share story details. However one good way of overcoming limited resources is to set up joint investigative teams with like-minded colleagues even if they work for other media houses. Divide the work, and agree which of the resulting stories each outlet will publish.
The most useful contacts are those within an organisation who can save you the moral dilemmas and risks of ‘going underground’ yourself. Gate-keepers are often literally that: secretaries, receptionists and door security officers, who can let you in to a place – or tell you who else goes in and out. Don’t make the mistake of paying attention only to high-ranking officials; try to establish good professional relations with everybody. Gate-keepers also play their role symbolically; controlling access to information rather than physical entry.
Remember that gate-keepers such as workers in banks, credit departments or government bodies will have signed confidentiality clauses as part of their employment contracts, and are legally bound not to disclose information. Do not seek their help for frivolous reasons, and always keep your relationships with them discreet, so that their identities can be protected. One very useful question in any investigation is ‘Who has this information?” Often, information has multiple gate-keepers.
Think laterally. If the Ministry of Health refuses to give you a document, perhaps another body has access to the same document: for example, the World Health Organisation, a health NGO, a university researcher working on this aspect of health, or a sympathetic member of the parliamentary health sub-committee.
Surveyors are your inside contacts who may not have any sensitive knowledge, but who can tell you, in Stephen Grey’s words “the lay of the land, who is who, who is really important, who really makes decisions”. Door-openers are the people with influence. If they like you, or believe your work is worthwhile, they can persuade others to talk to you. Door-openers may be respected elder statesmen, or far less senior but trusted individuals in an organisation or social group. Sometimes a traditional leader is the door-opener for his or her community. These are the people who will be listened to when they say: “This journalist is OK. You can talk to him/her.” Identify them through your context and background research and cultivate them.
Hanging around a shopping mall in the civil service suburb to observe bureaucrats at play is not quite the same thing as surveillance. Surveillance is close, covert observation of a story subject, which may or may not involve your ‘going underground’: posing as an insider, or using concealed cameras and recorders. One very common tactic since the arrival of cell phones is to phone your source while he is in a meeting with the person you are investigating, then have the cell phone left on while they conduct a conversation about your story topic, so you can listen in.
These activities are usually illegal and may also be unethical. The laws we discuss in Chapter 8 (privacy, false pretences, official secrets etc.) exist to prevent such activities, and all African states have these laws. Penalties can be severe, for both you and your news organisation. So, be sure you:
- use them only as a last resort, after you have tried all legal and public channels
- use them to fill defined gaps in your research, not simply to amass random raw impressions in the hope something will emerge
- use them only after careful consideration and discussion of the ethical implications
- consider how the use of covert techniques will affect the credibility of the final story and your reputation. Your subject may claim (and prove) that he was ‘trapped’ into doing or saying something incriminating
- use them only for stories that are in the public interest, where serious consequences will result if you do not follow the story through to the bitter end
In important investigations, you will sometimes need to use these tactics: never say “Never.” But be sure your reasons are sound.