2.1. Getting too personal

Two problems could arise while working on a story idea. First, feelings may get in the way of a balanced investigation. You may be so angry about the behaviour of public officials that the story is filled with vitriol and instead of facts. Do not betray the basic tenets of journalism — confront your own feelings, speak to trusted advisors or peers, and do your utmost to make sure it is a fact-driven story.

Another potential problem is that an individual experience may not be representative. It’s useful to get an understanding of how many other people are similarly affected. Did you experience certain treatment because you are a journalist, a man, or an educated person? Have others experienced the same? Does the problem happens every day or was yours a one-off case? Broaden the reporting beyond one single case. Writing about personal experiences is material for an opinion column, not an investigative report. To make it a proper report, seek reasons, understand the context and talk to different people to ensure your final story represents something more than your personal grievance.

This applies to anecdotes or ‘tip-offs’ from your colleagues and friends. Their experiences are real but may not be representative and could be biased. Additionally, steer clear of second-hand information conveyed by friends who may not have directly experienced an issue or problem. Unless the anecdote can be traced back to someone with a name, an address, and who can be interviewed, this is but rumour or urban legend. Experiences can be starting points for a good investigation — but only starting points.

Additionally, note the following advice of the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ):

“Some people you know may do jobs where a commitment not to disclose information goes with the job… a policeman, for example. So think first about how you use the people you know, and do not assume that just because someone is a friend or neighbour, they do not mind helping you out — it could make life difficult for them. Always get permission before you use someone’s personal story.”