Investigative journalism and elections Gerard Guedegbe, FAIR
PRACTICAL DEFINITION OF INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM: participatory definition approaches to investigative journalism
Exercise I: (5 minutes)
Propose a series definition approaches for what Investigative journalism is according to you and we will find key issues in them to build a more acceptable and consensual definition
Definition approaches to investigative journalism
Finding some common ground
Journalists, media academics and commentators all agree about certain aspects of investigative journalism:
1 It’s about digging deeply into an issue or topic
As the word ‘investigative’ implies, simply relaying a simple ‘bite’ of information – “A cattle fair will be held in X village next month” – cannot count as investigative journalism.
2 The issue or topic has to be of public interest
‘ Public interest’ means that either a community will be disadvantaged by not knowing this information, or will benefit (either materially or through informed decision-making) by knowing it. Sometimes what benefits one community may disadvantage another. Reporters need a clear sense of what their mission is and whom they serve, and this can involve heated newsroom debates. ‘Public interest’ means the interest of the community affected
It’s a process, not an event Investigative journalism never provides an instant story. It goes through recognized stages of planning and reporting, and has to work to accepted standards of accuracy and evidence. It’s original and proactive Investigative stories have to be based on the work of the journalist and (where resources permit) his or her team. Although an investigative story can start with a tip, simply reporting the tip, or printing the secret document that is anonymously faxed through to you, is not investigative journalism. It should produce new information or put together previously available information in a new way to reveal its significance. If the information, or the understanding of its importance, isn’t new, what exactly are you investigating?
It has to be multi-sourced. A single source can provide fascinating revelations and (depending on who the source is) access to insights and information that would otherwise be hidden. But until the story from that source is cross-checked against other sources – experiential, documentary and human– and its meaning is explored, no real investigation has happened. it calls for greater resources, team working and time than a routine news report. You’ll see that many of the case studies we use in the book are the result of team investigations. But this poses problems for small local and community publications with small staffs and limited time, money or specialized skills. A journalist may need to seek grants to support an investigation, and learn to tap the skills of others outside the newsroom to help with specialist expertise.
HOW TO SINGLE OUT INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING STORY IDEAS?
Where do story ideas come from?
When they start their careers, investigative journalists very often have an image in their minds of important people – if possible, very important people – approaching them in dark alleyways and slipping them packets of confidential, preferably top-secret, documents. Once the contents are revealed, the resulting Big Nasty Story makes the front page, with, if all goes well, a byline in really bold print. Praise, prizes, and perhaps the fall of regimes, all follow.
It does sometimes happen like that. Watergate,began with an anonymous tip-off – and, in the end, a US President did fall. But we’ve also seen the limitations of that model of investigative reporting, particularly in the context of resource-poor newsrooms in developing countries. And Watergate is a well known example not only because of the inspired and determined work of the reporters involved, but also because it’s unique: the story of a highly unusual set of circumstances and people.
Consider the accounts some of these reporters give of how their stories got started and elaborate on possible ways for generating stories:
“ In the midst of a conversation about something else, I picked up my source’s concern about this…” (Joyce Mulama, Kenya)
“ We were motivated by the need to clarify…the vast difference between electoral promises and the actual exercise of power…” (Eric Mwamba, Ivory Coast)
“ I began my story because a World Bank press release did not ‘feel’ right” (Joe Hanlon, UK/Mozambique)
“ The story started as an item in our daily news diary…” (Andrew Trench, South Africa)
“ I had covered another story about this company, and wondered why…” (Finnigan wa Simbeye, Tanzania)
“ When I saw the Sunday Times front page about this topic, it seemed to me it begged at least one other question… And another story got started because of something that happened to me when I tried to open a bank account.” (Tom Dennen, South Africa)
“ The story was inspired by a report launched at a conference in Addis Ababa, where I learned for the first time about something I hadn’t known of before.” (Joyce Mulama, Kenya)
“ A source leaked the story to one of us…” (Sello Selebi & Phakamisa Ndzamela, South Africa)
“ We considered many other topics for transnational investigations. But then it became starkly clear to us that the concern we all urgently shared was that our own members and people they knew, were actually getting sick and dying because of this…” (Evelyn Groenink, FAIR)
“ I heard more about this from a colleague whose cousin had been involved. I thought: I’d better go and have another look…” (Henry Nxumalo, South Africa)
“ I had always been sceptical about the success of a certain property developer…” (Charles Rukuni, Zimbabwe)
Very often, reporters complain “I don’t have enough evidence!” when they have been to the site of a story, spoken to role-players, and recorded detailed descriptions of what they saw. Yet all this is real, concrete evidence. In the same way, something that happens to you is no less valid as the starting-point for a story than something that happens to someone else. The advantage is, you know it is happening: you experienced it. You are your own best and first witness, and it is always preferable to have first-hand experience and observation to help you shape your own view of the story – backed up, of course, by detailed notes taken at the time; never rely on your memory. If you have a cellphone with a camera, photograph that leaking sewer as soon as you see it.
That is why we say that a journalist is never off-duty. Keep your eyes open, and notice the blocked drains on the road as you travel to work; the long queues you stand in at the passport office; the rudeness of the nurse at your clinic. There may be investigations there, waiting to be done. Keep an ‘ideas book’ as a section of your notebook, and jot these observations and questions down when you come across them.
The first is that your own feelings may get in the way of conducting a balanced investigation. You may be so angry at the conduct of public officials who delayed you that you seek to blame them, rather than uncovering the reasons for what happened
The second potential problem is that your experience may not be representative. You are only one person – how many people is this happening to? Did you experience certain treatment because you are a journalist, or a man, or a woman, or an educated person? Is other people’s experience the same? Does it happen every day, or was today different for some reason?
Solutions then :
The way to overcome these potential pitfalls is to broaden your reporting out from what happened to you. If you wish to write only about your personal experience, that’s an opinion column, not an investigative report. To make it a report, seek reasons, find out about context, and talk to a range of different kinds of people to make sure your final story represents something more than your personal grievance.
The experience of friends, colleagues and neighbors
All the same advantages and disadvantages apply to the people you know and work with. Their experiences are real, but may not be representative, and may be biased by personal feelings. So, again, they can be the starting points for good investigations – but only starting points.
Think first about how you use the people you know. And don’t imagine that because someone is a friend or neighbor, they don’t mind helping you out – it might make life difficult for them .
Steer clear, however, of things told to you by friends that are not direct experience, as in: “I have a cousin who knows a woman who was asked for a bribe at the airport.” Unless the woman has a name, an address, and can be interviewed, this is just rumor or urban legend
“ Roadside radio/Radio trottoir”: what people in your community are discussing?
No medium is better at generating urban legends than roadside radio: the fast-traveling gossip and anecdotes of street traders, taxi drivers and passengers, and people in bars and cafes. Periodically, rumors of ghost hitch-hikers, or miracle cures, or magical tricksters who make penises disappear, infect whole cities or villages.
Of course, the legend itself can become the subject of an investigation: is it really true? Why do people believe it? What does it tell us about our times and our country?
But far more useful is the way roadside radio can alert us to real trends and changes.
Just as you keep your eyes open for physical clues to stories, so your ears need to be alert to what people around you are discussing. Are girls disappearing, suspected victims of trafficking, in a certain suburb?
Your first step, however, has to be confirming the validity of the rumor. Cross-check with sources who are in a position to know
Once you have confirmed that the rumour has some substance, you can begin planning your story
Following-up news stories that have already been published
We do this far too infrequently. Reader surveys and focus groups invariably tell us that readers love follow-ups. They want to know what happens next, or why it happened, or what the story is behind the terse daily news. Look especially for news stories that neglect to ask ‘why’, or that seem to focus narrowly on only one aspect of an issue. Look, too, for alternative ways of covering obvious or regular stories such as world or national commemorative ‘days’.
Reading widely is your most important source of story ideas and the best way to upgrade your professionalism and writing skills. If you’re serious about your beat, accessing everything that is published about it is a professional duty. If you are not prepared to do this, investigative journalism is not the career for you.
What’s more, without the detailed, concrete knowledge that reading will give you of how systems and processes are supposed to work, how will you detect when something is going wrong? Don’t spend your time simply processing the information that happens to come your way – from press releases, statements and public events. Seek out new information to broaden your own knowledge base
Routine checks of public information on your beat
This is another basic professional obligation. When someone is appointed to a new post, check the public information about them: their life story, education, the directorships they hold, etc. When a new enterprise is founded, check the main players. Cross-check too: look for links between them and their colleagues, or rivals, or relevant figures in government. If the new Agriculture Minister also sits on the board of a major grain supply company, is this legal? Even if it is permitted, surely there’s the possibility of conflict of interest? Discovering these types of links is a potent source of stories.
Any reports of scarce supplies – whether of petrol or land or scholarships – make the likelihood of corruption in the allocation of those resources greater. Asking questions such as who the gatekeepers are on these supplies, and what the allocation mechanisms are supposed to be, can help you to track down the points at which scarcity is being turned into somebody’s personal gain.
Another form of routine checking is having regular conversations with your contacts in various fields
What is a tip-off? A piece of inside information, hint or warning
Many stories that expose wrongdoing start with a tip-off. We have a whole vocabulary of newsroom terms associated with these, for example, ‘Deep Throat’, the term for an anonymous insider, and a legacy of Watergate; ‘walk-ins’: people who just drop by your newsroom with a story.
So, for example, a contact in the police will inform you of a car-theft racket involving the commissioner; a vengeful ex-spouse will phone the newspaper she subscribes to, denouncing her tax-evading former husband; a politician will tell a friendly editor about an untoward relationship between a company tendering for a government contract and a member of the tender board.
But this information may not be everything that it seems. It may be untrue, and designed to set you up. It may be only a partial truth, tailored to serve somebody else’s agenda. And, true or not, it is an attempt to set your reporting agenda for you.
WHAT QUALITIES DOES AN INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER NEED?
Exercise 4 ( 10 minutes )
Try to make your own list here of the personal qualities you think an investigative reporter might need.
If your deepest wish is a management position with matching salary and if you enjoy being invited to dinners and parties given by VIP's 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!
As we’ve noted, many newsrooms operate on limited resources and all run on tight deadlines. So an investigative idea you mention at news conference won’t always be instantly adopted, particularly if is un-formed and vague. You need to take the initiative, do your own preliminary checking and shape the idea into a solid story plan.
4 Logical thinking, organization and self-discipline
Investigative reporting takes time and, because of the legal risks it often carries, must be verified down to the smallest detail. So you need to become a careful planner to make the best use of your time, and obsessive about checking and re-checking everything you discover, and making sure your story fits together.
An investigation can take unexpected turns. Sometimes the question you began by asking turns out to be a dead-end, or opens the door on another, far more interesting but less obvious question. You need to be prepared to rethink and redesign your research when this happens, and not stay wedded to your first ideas.
Very often the best stories come out of a co-operative effort that uses all the available skills in (and even outside) the newsroom. An investigative story may call upon knowledge of anything from science and health to economics and sociology, and no one journalist, however strong their general knowledge, can be an expert in all these. For example, if you are following a paper trail through company audits and no-one in the newsroom has a sophisticated grasp of accounting, you’ll need to identify an expert who can help you. So good contacts and networking form part of your teamwork. And you’ll need to be a good enough communicator to ensure that the team understands the purpose of the story and the standards (accuracy, honesty, confidentiality) expected of everybody on it
This doesn’t mean you have to have a degree in journalism. But you need enough of either training or experience, or both, to know how to identify sources, plan story research, conduct good interviews (and sense when an answer doesn’t ring true), and write accurately and informatively. You also need to know when you are out of your depth, and the humility to ask for advice or help. If you are relatively inexperienced, good teamworking (again) will help you to tap into the skills of others when this happens. Sometimes, people who don’t have a reporting background do have these skills. Researchers and community workers have often also been trained to interview and identify and sift facts, although they may need the help of newsroom workers to package a story attractively and accessibly for readers, listeners or viewers
8 Broad general knowledge and good research skills
Understanding the context of your investigation can help you avoid dead-ends and spot relevant facts and questions. But if your investigation takes you into an unfamiliar area, you must be able to familiarize yourself with at least the background, conventions, terminology, role-players and issues of that area quickly. The ability to have a searching, informative conversation with an expert, use computer search engines, or locate and skim-read useful books are all vital here. Above all, you must read – everything, whenever you have the time. You never know when a bit of background will prove useful for your work
Investigative reporting will bring you up against all kinds of obstacles, from sources who disappear and records that don’t exist, to editors who want to can the story because it is taking too long or costing too much. Only your own motivation and belief that it is a worthwhile story will carry you through what is often a slow process of discovery
Investigative stories may put the security, jobs or even lives of sources at risk. They also risk putting their subjects at similar risk if reckless accusations are made. So an investigative reporter needs to have a strong, explicitly thought-out set of 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 you lose this if you behave unethically..
Gossips do not make good investigative reporters. As we’ve seen, loose talk can put the investigation – and lives – at risk. But in addition, it can tip off commercial rivals who will then scoop your story, or alert interviewees before you get a chance to talk to them. In a whole range of ways, talking too much can sabotage the story.
IJs are often attacked as ‘unpatriotic’, but we do not see our role like that. We believe that what we investigate and discover is driven by concern for the public interest and what will make our community better. Zambia-based Edem Djokotoe warns: You might have the best research and writing skills in the world, but if you aren’t driven by personal convictions to contribute your skills to your society as a citizen, your story will lack purpose and heart.
It isn’t only subjects and sources that are at risk. Reporters may be threatened with legal action or violence, jailed, or even assassinated for their investigations. Without these, you will succumb to pressure and censor yourself. You need to believe in what you’re doing, have the courage to carry on, and if possible have personal and professional support structures (for example, family or partner, religious community, counselor, legal advisor, supportive editor and team) in place for when times get tough.
Reportage is seen as a reflection of the world, which is accepted as it is. The reporter does not hope for results beyond informing the public.
The reportage does not require a personal engagement from the reporter.
The reporter seeks to be objective, without bias or judgement toward any of the parties in the story.
The dramatic structure of the reportage is not of great importance. The story does not have an end, because the news is continuous.
Errors may be committed by the reporter, but they are inevitable and usually without importance.
The reporter refuses to accept the world as it is. The story is aimed at penetrating or exposing a given situation, in order to reform it, denounce it or, in certain cases, promote an example of a better way.
Without a personal engagement from the reporter, the story will never be completed.
The reporter seeks to be fair and scrupulous toward the facts of the story, and on that basis may designate its victims, heroes and wrongdoers. The reporter may also offer a judgment or verdict on the story.
The dramatic structure of the story is essential to its impact, and leads to a conclusion that is offered by the reporter or a source.
Errors expose the reporter to formal and informal sanctions, and can destroy the credibility of the reporter and the media.
Never forget that the usefulness of human sources depends not only on who they are, but also on your skill as a reporter in building a relationship of trust, asking good questions and recording answers with meticulous accuracy. Investigation is one type of reporting where – whether or not you can use it in court – you should record, and not simply note, your interactions with sources. Your starting point – always – is listing the main role-players in your story and planning how you will interview them. But often an investigative project benefits from doing your most important interviews at a later stage, when you are in possession of more information and background and can frame your questions very precisely. So there are other people you need to find first – and some of them, you may not even know at this early stage.
We have already seen that the most important, reliable and vivid sources are usually witnesses: the people who have experienced or are otherwise directly involved in a story. You begin to identifying witnesses by combing previous accounts of your topic for the names of people who were involved, or simply on the scene. If people claim to have been present or involved, you must of course verify that they were.
Look for peoplecurrently associated with the subject Consider organizations in which the subject is active such as sports clubs, religious organizations or charities. Remember that such people, because they are in some kind of relationship with the subject, will have an attitude towards him or her. Factor this in to your enquiries.
There are experts on almost everything eg. Tradition guardians, performers etc…
Make sure you have done solid preliminary research before you talk to your chosen expert, so that your questions are clear and reasonably well-informed. An expert does not expect you to know as much as he or she does, but it is insulting to go in unprepared. However, it is quite legitimate to ask for explanations in layman’s language, so that you can explain things better to your readers. Always be careful to record what experts tell you accurately. It is acceptable to ask: “Is this correct?” And never twist, omit or distort what they tell you because it does not fit your hypothesis.
sometimes you can ‘shake out’ contacts by actually letting it be known that you are working on a topic, or already possess certain information. Sometimes you can do this informally
Evaluating your sources
You need to decide whether you will deal with the person, and whether you are prepared and have the resources to deal with any legal or ethical issues that may arise from your dealings. The following questions may help you to make that decision.
Is the source genuine?
At the most basic level, you need to find out whether the person is who s/he claims to be. Can they prove where they work, their address, their family details, military record, passport, ID or driver’s license?
Ethics is a personal and professional responsibility for all journalists, not simply a theoretical debate. Ethical decision-making is undepinned by four broad principles:
Tell the truth – or, more accurately, truths, since situations are often complex and many-sided. This is our mission as journalists; when we stop doing it, we cease to deserve the name.
Minimise harm . If we said ‘do no harm’ we might be advocating writing no stories, since all actions have consequences. But by balancing truth-telling and doing the least possible harm, we have constructed a framework that allows us to do our job while always being mindful of consequences
Stay independent Don’t be bullied, bought, or even muted by the weight of conventional opinion. It’s legitimate to have views, and to write stories motivated by your convictions, but your views should never lead to your changing the truths you discover.
Stay accountable . This means always thinking about how you would justify a story, or aspect of a story, if challenged.