There are experts on almost everything: historians, research scientists, lawyers, engineers and many more. When dealing with corporate affairs (e.g., the activities of multinationals), it is particularly important to identify the right expert, like someone who works for the company that is the subject of your investigation. But a great deal will depend on how this person obtained their expertise, and whether or not they were involved in something that triggered your investigation. Experts in different, but related areas may provide fresh insights into your subject. A lawyer, a police officer, a doctor or even an interrogator may be as useful to your story on human rights violations as a human rights campaigner.
However, not all experts have equal status or are equally reliable. So look for recommendations from other journalists you trust; research the person on the Internet. Find out who they do their research for, since scientists funded by commercial concerns may share the same biases as lobbyists. Look at what criticisms their work has drawn, and remember that both praise and criticisms happen within the contending ideas of a particular discipline.
Even reliable experts (or expert reports) need to be interrogated. If several experts disagree, you must find a way of presenting these differences in context, so they make sense to readers. If the weight of expert opinion stands strongly on one side, it makes sense to heed the expert’s advice, but you also may be proven wrong. When experts are evenly divided, you owe it to your readers to explain that. For a long time, the media presented the debate on global warming as evenly divided. Only later did analysis of reports reveal that many of the ‘experts’ debunking global warming were paid spokespeople from energy lobbies. In fact, the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence has, for many years, signified that global warming is happening and is dangerous.
In most countries with a functioning federal government, government departments and experts are regarded as some of the most 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 to be 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 the government to present information in a particular light. As with other sources, consider the context and possible motives when you weigh the information these expert sources provide. However, these insiders are often extremely knowledgeable and assuming they are always biased is just as detrimental as assuming they are always correct and impartial. Just like information from non-expert sources, verify all information they give you using a second informed source. It is also sometimes possible to ask a government department for an unofficial or 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 international 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 interests. But precisely for this reason, donor bodies (like all other organisations) and other types of agencies have their own policies and principles, and are often firmly guided by these policies or backing organisations. 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.
Sometimes, you can ‘shake out’ contacts by letting it be known that you are working on a topic, or already possess certain information. You can do this informally, by using your networks of contacts; sometimes by publishing a preliminary 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 the pros and cons of this tactic carefully, as 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!
If you cannot find an expert to backup your story that does not mean you cannot move forward. You may be wrong – or you may simply be asking the wrong expert, or the wrong questions. Including a diversity of opinions in your story shows you have an open mind and may prompt other experts with different views to come forward.