SIX KEYS TO GOOD INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM:
- A good question
Behind any good investigation, there is always a secondary question. Often, this is the side question that a curious observer will ask themselves once they have the answers to all the main questions, but which they daren’t ask out loud for fear of what lies behind. It is often the “why” of the “how” or the “how” that you have guessed, but cannot find behind the apparent facts.
Let’s suppose that I have already gathered all the answers to the questions that I asked about the establishment of the Dosh Bank head office in Mark Pesos’ enormous high-security facility on the island of Moray. I have what I need to publish a full record of the repercussions of this change, the new life of the well-known banker, his state of mind, his plans, et cetera. My exclusive report about the disgruntled islanders will be the icing on the cake. I’m happy with what I’ve achieved… Yet there’s a secondary question nagging at me. But it’s such a weighty question, it leaves me in disbelief. How was Mark Pesos able to build such a building in a protected nature area? How did he get the necessary permits? Is it legal? And how has he financed such an enormous building site when he is supposedly bankrupt? I puzzle over these questions, but I don’t know how to answer them. There are just too many obstacles…
- A first thread
Investigative journalists work in the grey areas of the news just as historians feel their way through the shadows of history. To find that first thread, journalists use the same methods as historians: they research the subject that has caught their attention, familiarise themselves with the protagonist, read everything that has been written about them, draw up a list of known and potential witnesses, note the key dates and moments in the protagonist’s private and public life, draw up a list of queries raised by unanswered questions… In other words, they paint a canvas of the mystery they want to solve.
In the case of Mark Pesos, it quickly becomes apparent that he has benefitted from financial support from the magnate Lucas Moneybags, who heads up an important foundation and is a man of considerable wealth. The well-known banker also had multiple meetings with Frances Farthing, the Director of the National Office for Protected Areas.
Here is your initial point of entry: find out more about Frances Farthing, her personal connections with Mark Pesos, the frequency of their meetings over the last few months, speak to her close friends and family about the transfer of the Dosh Bank head office to the island of Moray, despite it being a protected nature site, etc.
- Spinning the web
When journalists become historians of the present, they need time to understand their subject, work out its scope and then cover it. They take this time because they need it. They progress slowly, moving from one key element to the next.
Individuals as powerful as Lucas Moneybags or Frances Farthing must have rivals and enemies. These witnesses will surely have things to say on the assistance that they may have given to Mark Pesos’ megaproject. I draw up a list of these people and seek out more information, which I can use to cajole them. These are the people I meet with first, because they will be more willing to talk to me than Frances Farthing herself, or her family and friends.
Journalists begin spinning their web on the periphery of their subject gradually approaching the core questions.
- Perfecting the web
Interviews always bring new leads.
Put at ease by my professionalism, my first witnesses give me other sources. While Mark Pesos benefited from the large self-serving gifts from Lucas Moneybags, he also increased his wealth by buying out numerous companies, some of which ran into difficulties. I have no difficulty in getting the former directors of these companies to talk. They tell me in detail how this prominent banker works. I also learn that he has known Frances Farthing since early childhood as they were at school together. She has also been a long-time consultant for the Dosh Group, but under her maiden name… The data is starting to pile up.
Now comes the time for an investigative journalist to sort, untangle and straighten out the information gathered while circling around the subject. They verify figures, gather the documents together, fact-check witness accounts and set out a timeline.
- The spider’s strategy.
With their prey surrounded, investigative journalists attack head-on, without hesitation, safe in the knowledge that they have all the tools they need. All that remains is to conclude their work by asking their target for an explanation of the facts they have uncovered. This is a journalist’s ethical duty: if they publish stories about someone, they must give them the opportunity to explain themselves. But, you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar…
So, I ask Mark Pesos for an interview. Preferably, I do this in writing, using measured and amicable words, to show that I’m impartial. But I remain vague about my real motives so I don’t scare him off. If he agrees to meet me, I will, of course, include his responses in my report. If he refuses, that will also be included, so that my readers know I acted in good faith.
An investigative journalist must be entirely transparent in their work to show their respect for the truth and their readers.
- An irrefutable argument.
A well-conducted investigation is easy to write up. Facts, witness accounts and evidence link up to form a logical sequence, as is the case for a mathematical proof.
To bring the text to life, journalists add some of the things they have seen and heard to their proof, but these are no more than flourishes. Anything that may distract their readers from their main argument is set aside. Value judgements have no place here (except, now and then, in a conclusion or an editorial) because the facts speak for themselves.
The key lies in the cold severity of your argument, which must back up the headline of your investigation and its closing statement.
ANY INVESTIGATION CARRIED OUT BY MORE THAN ONE JOURNALISTS NEEDS TO BE COORDINATED
Some investigations do indeed need a multi-pronged approach. Working alone, even the best journalist may not be able to pull together all the threads, especially when investigating extensively to follow up all the leads. In this case, involving multiple journalists in the investigation is the best method. In our example, we could have split the work three ways, between two specialist journalists for the environmental and financial aspects, and a general reporter to cover the things seen and heard in the field. The difficulty in this method lies in maintaining an overview of the work and then putting it into its final form. Rigorous organisation and an overall coordinator are therefore essential.
ALL INVESTIGATIONS HAVE THEIR LIMITS.
The success of journalistic investigations sometimes depends on the investigative journalist’s ability to withhold information or conceal their thoughts. They must prove their skills in unearthing hidden truths. Searching for the truth in the public interest gives them licence to be cunning. But this public service must not be confused with a quest to satisfy personal ambitions or a personal thirst for revenge. Honesty in any investigation requires the journalist to be clear about their motivations. We do not investigate for personal desire, but rather because the public has a right to know the truth. Investigative journalists are not police officers or judges; we do not resort to deceit.