Investigative journalists do not 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:
Investigative journalism will take you down some dark roads, as you unearth secrets people do not wish for you to find. You may face pressure from the authorities, censorship from your bosses, or even death threats in some cases. It requires courage and bravery to press on.
The ability to ask the five ‘W’s and 1 ‘H’ in your everyday life 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.
Journalism is unlikely to make you rich, and sucks a lot of time and energy out of you. Being an investigative journalist also means you’re likely to step on powerful people’s toes, and risk your life in some cases. If you take on this job, it’s because you believe in a higher cause: truth, justice, or simply giving a voice to the unheard.
Many newsrooms operate on limited resources and all run on tight deadlines. So an 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 getting grants) for the work might be needed.
Loose talk can put the investigation and the lives of those involved at risk. In addition, it can tip off competitors who might scoop the story or alert interviewees before you get a chance to talk to them. Remember: loose lips sink ships.
Fairness and ethics
Investigative stories may put a source’s safety job or even life at risk. It is equally dangerous if reckless accusations are made. A good investigative reporter holds himself to a moral code, 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 have guidelines in place to discuss and resolve ethical dilemmas.
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 facts several times, and make sure the story fits together.
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 useful books are all vital here. Reading widely is important — you never know when a seemingly innocuous titbit of information might prove useful for your investigation.
An investigation can take unexpected turns. Sometimes, the first question turns out to be a dead-end. Other times, it opens the door to 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
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. One journalist, however broad his knowledge, cannot 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 adhere to high standards of accuracy, honesty, and confidentiality.
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.