You cannot move from an idea straight into an investigation. Your idea is just a starting point. Investigative stories carry a heavy social responsibility – and various legal risks – so you must be sure your reporting is as thorough, accurate and comprehensive as possible. And because such reports are likely to require team effort and significant resources, you also need to ensure good communication. As such, you need to chart how each stage of the story will unfold.
Where your idea originated will be one factor that shapes your work plan. If the idea came from your own observations, or from anecdotal evidence, you need to be sure that these individual experiences represent a broader trend or issue. If the idea came from a tip, you must check its authenticity, reliability and possible motives of the source before you move forward. If your sources are impeccable and initial facts irrefutable, then the next stage is turning your story idea into a tightly-focused hypothesis that your investigation will prove or dispel. This initial stage of the plan is never set in stone – it needs to have sufficient flexibility to cope with new information and angles your investigation may uncover.
Very often, a story will begin with a broad idea that will allow for investigating a wide (and probably unmanageable) universe of topics. Thomas Oliver, the former managing editor of the American newspaper Atlanta Journal-Constitution, notes: “Projects tend to become all-inclusive and sometimes exhaustively cover everything one ever wanted to know about a subject. This is a weakness, not a strength.”
A good technique for developing and refining this idea is to write your way into it. Try to compose a story summary – a paragraph that describes what the final story will look like. This is a way of opening newsroom minds to the story and sketching out a range of possible explanations. It also helps you see whether the story is best framed from a local angle, or whether it has regional or national implications. At this stage, consider the following questions:
- > What has been happening? Why should your readers care?
- > Who are the actors involved? How did they do it? What are the consequences?
- > What went wrong? How did it go wrong? Why did it go wrong? What have the consequences been?
- > Who will benefit or suffer if the story is published? Will the story facilitate debate about societal values or behaviour? Will the story highlight faulty systems or processes?
Answering these questions will help you think about how a story can be told and identify how to tackle your investigation.
For example, in the case of a big outbreak of diarrhoea after water services were privatised, you could frame the story about how people find water when they cannot buy it from a private company, making this a story about affordability to a basic need. Or you could visit the water plant to look at the adequacy of safety checks, and highlight the issue of shortcuts at the expense of safety. Careful consideration of these questions can put the spotlight on the values that underlie the story.
This is also where you examine whether the story is of true public interest and discard the ones that are just about mere mudslinging. In framing your story, avoid loose terminology that could be interpreted in different ways! When you have collected all the evidence you need, you will be able to return to these questions and tailor your writing accordingly.