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You cannot move from an idea straight into an investigation. Your idea is just a starting point. Because investigative stories carry a heavy social responsibility – and various legal risks – you must be sure your reporting is as thorough, accurate and comprehensive as possible. Because media work is a team effort that requires significant resources, you also need to ensure that there is good communication with colleagues and access to the materials needed to carry out the project. For all these reasons, you need to carefully plan 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 really 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 even before you move forward. But even if you find that your sources are impeccable and initial facts irrefutable, the first stage of the process is turning your story idea into a tightly-focused hypothesis or question that your investigation will prove, disprove or answer. However, this initial stage of the plan is never set in stone; it needs to have sufficient flexibility to cope with new information and new directions that 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, investigative journalist and 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 are the consequences?
  • >   What is the news? What is the story? What are keywords associated with the story?
  • >   What is the rationale? 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 a direction for the investigation.

For example, in the case of a big outbreak of diarrhoea after water services have been privatised, you could frame the story about how people find water when they cannot buy it from a private company (keyword: affordability), or you could write from the perspective of visiting the water plant to look at the adequacy of safety checks (keyword: cutting corners). Careful consideration of these questions can help to put the spotlight on the values that underlie the story. This is also the point where priorities, such as public interest, are examined and may shut down stories that are simply exposed for the sake of exposure. In your framing of the 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 in the appropriate direction.