Reading widely is the most important source of story ideas and the best way to improve your professionalism and writing skills. If you are serious about your beat, reading everything published about it is a professional duty and base for a professional career in investigative journalism. Without reading, journalists would not have the a good understanding of how systems and processes are supposed to work, and therefore what it looks like when something goes wrong. Do not spend time simply processing the information that happens to come your way, but rather continually seek out new information to broaden your own knowledge base!
Brant Houston, former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), reminds readers of IRE’s Investigative Reporter’s Handbook that local newspapers carry many seeds for investigative stories. Behind every paid legal notice lurks a story, whether it deals with wills, name changes, foreclosures, auctions, tenders, seized properties or unclaimed property. Local newspapers also carry interesting reports on new construction or government projects and even local court cases. You may find the name of your school bus driver in a drunk driving case, or the name of a financial officer in a shoplifting case.
What journalists do far too infrequently is to follow published stories. Reader surveys and focus groups invariably show that readers love follow-ups. They want to know what happens next, why it happened or what the story is behind terse daily news. Look especially for news stories that neglect to ask ‘why’ or seem to focus narrowly on only one aspect of an issue. Look also for alternative ways of covering obvious or regular stories, such as global or national commemorative days.
Official and NGO reports often look dull and daunting, and many journalists see reading these as a routine task rather than a source of exciting stories. But if you read their contents carefully, you can often uncover new and challenging information that can kick off an investigation.
Although scarce resources or geography may limit your access to overseas publications and websites, investigative reporters should use whatever channels they can to keep up to date. The various information services of embassies and non-governmental organisations often have free reading rooms or libraries, often with Internet access. If there are no alternatives, journalists should get into the habit of visiting these whenever possible.
If you access Internet regularly, look for news sites and social networks, as Facebook or Twitter, where you will come across views and counter views. Twitter feeds provide basic information and the latest news about a wealth of current issues. This is especially important in an area such as health or science, where the state of accepted wisdom can change quickly. Some journalists in under-developed areas were still writing stories about the lack of effective treatments for AIDS years after antiretroviral drugs had been tested and put into successful use in Europe and the U.S. These journalists simply did not have access to this information, and/or had no access to the Internet. It took these journalists much longer to move public awareness toward this vital health issue: the right of access to these drugs and the various ways they are blocked.