Investigative journalists don’t happen overnight, but they tend to share a few common traits. Nurture these, and you might well be on your way to uncovering your next scoop. Here is an overview of the essential traits:
To investigative journalist Evelyn Groenink, passion is the most important quality:
‘Most investigative journalism is a thankless endeavour, time- and energy-consuming that will get your editor impatient and powerful people annoyed with you. If you like a stable income with regular promotions, if your deepest wish is a management position with matching salary and if you enjoy being invited to dinners and parties given by VIPs in your country or community, then investigative journalism is probably not for you. But if you enjoy challenges, have a passion for truth and justice, and want to serve your readership or audience with stories that matter, no matter how much time and energy it costs you – and even if some powerful people will end up with maybe less-than-friendly feelings towards you – then, by all means, go for it!’
Asking questions is where investigative journalism starts. The questions can be about events in the news or about things you see or hear about in your everyday life.
Many newsrooms operate on limited resources and all run on tight deadlines. So an investigative idea mentioned at a news conference will not always be instantly adopted, particularly if it is uninformed and vague. Investigative journalists need to take the initiative, do their own preliminary research and shape the idea into a solid story plan. If the newsroom is still not interested, further initiative in identifying support (such as an investigative grant) for the work might be needed.
Logical thinking, organisation and self-discipline
Investigative reporting takes time and, because of the legal risks it often carries, fine-grained verification. So you need to become a careful planner to make the best use of your time, be obsessive about checking and re-checking facts and make sure the story fits together.
An investigation can take unexpected turns. Sometimes, the first question turns out to be a dead-end or opens the door on a far more interesting, but less obvious, question. Investigative journalists need to be prepared to rethink and redesign their research when this happens and not stay wedded to their initial ideas.
Team spirit and communication skills
Movies often portray the investigative reporter as a ‘lone wolf’. Sometimes, there are situations where secrecy is so important that a story cannot be shared with others until certain safeguards are in place. But very often the best stories come out of a co-operative effort that uses all available skills in (and even outside) the newsroom. For example, think about the successful work of the ‘Spotlight’ team, investigating the cases of child sex abuses by Catholic priests. An investigative story may call upon knowledge of anything from science and health to economics and sociology, and no one journalist, however broad their knowledge, can be an expert in all these areas. Good contacts and networking form part of this teamwork. Good communication forms another part, ensuring that the team understands the story’s purpose and the standards (accuracy, honesty, confidentiality) expected by everyone contributing to it.
Well-developed reporting skills
This does not necessarily mean having a degree in journalism, but rather having enough training and experience to know how to identify sources, plan story research, conduct good interviews (and sense when an answer does not ring true), and write accurately and informatively. Additionally, journalists need to know when they are out of their depth and should have the humility to ask for advice or help. If you are relatively inexperienced, good team work will help you to tap into the skills of others when the unexpected happens.
Broad general knowledge and good research skills
Understanding the context of the investigation can help avoid dead ends by identifying relevant facts and questions. However, if the investigation leads into an unfamiliar area, investigative journalists must be able to familiarise themselves with the background, conventions, terminology, role-players and issues of that area quickly. The ability to have an informative conversation with an expert, use search engines, or locate and skim-read useful books are all vital here. Above all, they must read everything, whenever they have the time. A bit of background might already be useful for the story.
Fairness and strong ethics
Investigative stories may put the security, jobs or even lives of sources at risk. They are also susceptible to putting their subjects at similar risk if reckless accusations are made. So an investigative reporter needs to have strong, thoughtful personal ethics to ensure that sources and subjects are treated respectfully and – as far as possible – protected from harm. In addition, newsrooms that support investigative stories need to be guided by ethical codes and have a process in place for discussing and resolving ethical dilemmas. Sometimes, public trust is your best protection, and this is lost if you behave unethically.
Gossip does not make good investigative reports. Loose talk can put the investigation – and lives of those involved – at risk. In addition, it can tip off commercial rivals who will then scoop the story or alert interviewees before you get a chance to talk to them. In a range of ways, talking too much can sabotage the story.
Investigative journalists are often attacked as ‘unpatriotic’. However, investigative journalists are motivated by their concern for the public interest and work on stories that help make their communities better.
This chapter defined investigative journalism and explained its importance for the public interest. It underscored how it is not always easy for investigative journalists to convince their editors to support an investigative story. This mainly depends on how promising the story’s findings could be. Therefore, the upcoming chapter will discuss how to find a story and ensure that you are not following false clues or tips.