After coming up with a concrete idea, creating a hypothesis, source mapping is the next stage of the investigative reporting process. You will need to identify who the key actors in the story are and any documents that record their actions. Many public records show what governments, hospital staff, corporations, mafia and corrupt politicians have been up to. Various sources can help prove your assumptions and either verify or refute your original hypothesis. For every detail, always use the two-source principle, which means you rely on two independent sources to confirm the same information. These sources will serve as background experts; make sure to add their contact details into your address book. These sources can either be primary or secondary sources.
Primary sources: These are sources that provide first-hand evidence or relate direct experience. For example, a patient who bought drugs from a nurse via a hospital back door would be a primary source who is able to lend that specific experience, but is not able to attest to what nurses are generally doing behind the scenes. A foreman at the water plant, who was told to do purity checks once a month instead of once a week, is also a primary source. So is a bank statement of a cabinet minister that clearly shows a payment from an international arms company. Primary sources – as long as you have verified them and made sure they are authentic – are the most valuable sources because they provide direct proof. Often, they are also the hardest to find. People with relevant experience may be reluctant to go on the record because they fear being victimised, and documents, like bank statements or hospital records, may be kept confidential or even restricted by privacy laws.
Secondary sources: Secondary sources include all kinds of published materials, including organisational reports and second-hand accounts (‘I had a friend who…’). Secondary sources are valuable, particularly for establishing context and background, helping to explain issues and providing leads to good contacts. However, any evidence you draw from them – as well as the person they originated from – should be checked and verified.
Furthermore, you can differentiate between four types of source material: human, paper, digital and crowdsourced.
(a) Human sources: Many sources fall into this category: direct role players, eyewitnesses, experts and interested parties, eager and reluctant. Be sure you understand the status, credentials and motivations of the people you approach. If you are working on the water privatisation story, the representatives of anti-privatisation organisations will be able to provide a great deal of information and strong opinions of the opposing side. But that information will come from a particular position, and representatives of organisations are often speaking on behalf of much larger groups of people. When they summarise group views, they may organise and edit community opinions in ways that change or exclude important aspects – sometimes quite unintentionally. Therefore, you need to seek a wide variety of viewpoints. If you are speaking to people from a community, be sure your selection of voices is demographically representative: Women, men, young, old, from various income and interest groups. Human voices give your story authenticity and make it come alive; for that reason, never to base a story on paper or electronic sources alone.
(b) Paper sources: These can include books, newspapers and magazines, official records and business documents, such as contracts and bank statements. This may include ‘grey’ material, or material that is widely circulated but may not have ever been published (e.g., studies commissioned from private organisations, academic dissertations) or which may be officially confidential. Very often, it is paper sources that will provide the proof you seek. We call this ‘following the paper trail’.
But investigative journalists face problems when seeking paper evidence: Perhaps the journalist does not know if the evidence exists, or perhaps public records are disordered and difficult to search, or perhaps there are no freedom of information laws that allow the media to conduct paper searches. One key concern are officials who may stall this process because they fear that information will be used against them or the government. One important piece of initial research in an investigative story is to discover what documents are used in the field you are investigating, where and how they are stored, and how they can be accessed. If advance permissions are necessary, you will need to do this early in your research, since official permits can take weeks and months to come through. Do not overlook obvious paper sources: directories and phone books.
Veteran American investigative reporter Bill Gaines credits his ability to research documents with his success. ‘I was able to get stories that other people missed because I went to the places where you could find the documents.’ And very often, Gaines found what he was seeking in public documents, not by raiding secret files. He found the home of an important source by searching property records and nailed a company for corruption because of something they had written when filing a business registration.
(c) Digital sources: These include information on the web and digitally stored records. Searching for these sources does not require extraordinary skills. The amount of information available online is dazzling but, as with any other source, you need to verify where the information came from, as well as their credentials and possible motives. You need to check what officials are writing about themselves, and how friends and family describe them. But do remember that the web is relatively uncontrolled: Almost anyone with access can post almost anything, including complete fabrications. In addition, web information often stays online for a long time; sometimes long after it has become outdated. Always check the most recent sources first. For further help, download a free copy of the Verification Handbook published by the European Journalism Centre (EJC). It provides tools, techniques and step-by-step guidelines on how to deal with digital content.
(d) Crowd-sourcing: This new tool combines human and digital sources. It involves media outlets drawing readers to investigative stories by inviting them to contribute.
To obtain data sources that are difficult to access, there may be laws in place to help you, like the Right to Information Act in India, the Promotion of Access to Information Act in South Africa or the Law on Free Access to Information of Public Importance in Serbia. In every country, these laws differ not just in their titles but also in their content, which makes global advice on legal regulations difficult to give. But remember that you should conduct some research about the laws in your country before you start your investigations.