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Journalists have to investigate all sides of a story, and that includes examining party factions and tensions, and the conduct of the accuser as well as the accused. But how can tip-offs, gossip, personal experiences or other forms of research be verified?

Two sets of important questions must be asked when gathering information gleaned during web-based research. The first is: Who has written this, what are their credentials and what are their motivations? Anyone can post almost anything on the web, Twitter and Facebook, from genuine experts to wishful thinkers, lobbyists paid by commercial or political interests or commoners. That is why evaluating the reliability of information is a must.

Journalists have to investigate all sides of a story, and that includes examining party factions and tensions, and the conduct of the accuser as well as the accused. But how can tip-offs, gossip, personal experiences or other forms of research be verified?

Two sets of important questions must be asked when gathering information gleaned during web-based research. The first is: Who has written this, what are their credentials and what are their motivations? Anyone can post almost anything on the web, Twitter and Facebook, from genuine experts to wishful thinkers, lobbyists paid by commercial or political interests or commoners. That is why evaluating the reliability of information is a must.

The second important question is what public information is available about the individual who posted the tip? Investigative journalists should try to understand their life story, education, the directorships they hold, etc. Check their Facebook account and their tweets. When a new enterprise is mentioned, investigate the main players. Also cross-check links between their colleagues, rivals or relevant figures in government. If the new agriculture minister also sits on the board of a major grain trading company, is this legal? Even if it is permitted, surely there is a conflict of interest. Discovering such links could provide useful insights for a potential story.

Any reports of scarce supplies – like petrol, land or scholarships – can suggest the possibility of corruption in the allocation of those resources. Asking questions, such as who are the gatekeepers of these supplies and how the allocation mechanisms are supposed to work, can help identify potential corruption, where scarcity is turned into someone’s personal gain. By checking websites closely, investigative journalists can get an idea of what information these individuals have revealed and how much they are hiding.

It is fairly easy for a prominent state official or politician to access or create documentary ‘evidence’ that seems to underpin false or partial allegations. Documents can be forged by anyone with access to official letterheads, a computer and a photocopier. But even if they are real, documents can be carefully selected to paint a partial, half-true picture, with other crucial documents strategically omitted.

At times, documents can be so complex or technical that non-specialist journalists cannot understand them and need to rely on a source’s expertise. Such documents should be discussed with independent experts, such as accountants, lawyers or doctors. But even seemingly simple documents are prone to misinterpretation. Sometimes an allegation turns out to be true, but the misconduct may be relatively insignificant. When corruption allegations fly as commonly as mosquitos, journalists have to be very careful not to fall victim to the agendas of informants trying to use them to neutralise rivals, remove obstacles and realise their own ambitions.

Another form of routine investigation is regular conversations with contacts in various fields. Establishing a good relationship, one that will produce fruitful news before other reporters are alerted, requires regular contact with sources without a set agenda. If you only contact sources when you need them, they will begin to feel used. This is called ‘working’ your contacts. But stories from these sources will not automatically jump out and wave at you. You will have to be creative and inquisitive to find good story ideas.

Investigative journalist and professor at INSEAD, Mark Hunter, and his Dutch colleague, Luuk Sengers, provide some advice:

‘We gather information to get a story out of it; we don’t work on stories simply to gather information. You want to stir emotions. You want your readers to get angry, to weep, to become determined to change things. Otherwise, what is the point of spending so much time collecting evidence, risking your life and your relationships? People are real characters in your investigations, not just quotes.’