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Skip to 0 minutes and 10 seconds Potential investigation projects come in all shapes and sizes. You have to choose your toolkit and adapt your skills carefully and wisely, because no two cases that you will come across will be the same. Let us look at some useful steps which can be taken to break down and evaluate a case. Number one, you should always remind yourself about the criteria of the definition of journalism. This will help you to evaluate whether or not from the outset the story that you’re looking at is worth investigating. Is it also something that you can build on and add to through your own hard work. Is this a story that others want to remain concealed?

Skip to 1 minute and 0 seconds Is it a story which has got the potential to have real impact? And finally, is this a story that exists in our midst but we may have missed? All these basic criteria help you to take stock and to evaluate whether the project from the very beginning is worth pursuing? Second, when you begin a project, you should also use what I call the circle technique at the story’s very earliest stages. Now, the circle technique is very simple. It means that when you start looking at your project, doing basic research, then you should read and research around the edges as widely and fully as possible. You should educate yourself about the subject. You should try and understand it.

Skip to 1 minute and 47 seconds You should read old clippings. You should look at old news articles. Try from the very beginning to go as deeply and widely into your subject as possible, so that you become fluent in the language and the content of what it is that you’re trying to investigate. Thirdly, find documents. This can’t be overstated. Documents can help you understand the subject and the people involved. You can use freedom of information laws to try and find documents. It’s there and it can be used by journalists to their advantage. So you can put in requests asking pertinent questions which will help fill the gaps in your knowledge.

Skip to 2 minutes and 29 seconds You should always keep the material safe and if possible in an encrypted form online or in an external drive. Store the documents securely, because you should always protect the privacy of the people and the issues that you’re investigating. But remember, documents are in some ways the gold standard of investigative journalism. Fourth, find people. Use search engines and special add-ons to track people down. There are many online readily available. Use professional sites to find out where people work and what their career trajectory has been like. Use popular media sites too. But always consider the laws and ethics as you work your way through your investigative project.

Skip to 3 minutes and 17 seconds If you must approach people, remember to be polite, clear in your aims, and ready to back off. Fifth, always work from the facts outwards, never from a thesis inwards. This concept is simply about not jumping to conclusions. When you work from the facts outwards, you lead to a proportionate version of the story that you’re trying to tell. If you work from the outside a thesis inwards, you may be accused of seeing conspiracies where there are none. By all means, test the hypothesis as you go along. But don’t make the mistake of writing your headline before you have the whole story. Let the facts lead you to your story, not the other way around.

Skip to 4 minutes and 7 seconds Don’t bend or ignore facts that don’t fit with your narrative. Sixth, ask yourself as you proceed, what laws have been broken that I can see in this story? How have individuals in the community and wider country been affected by the issues that this story seems to be throwing up? Who has gained and who has lost in this story? Why does this matter? Why does this story need to be told? One definition of investigative journalism is that we are what’s called custodians of conscience. So you have to ask yourself, who has been robbed here of their moral rights or their human rights or their legal rights?

Skip to 4 minutes and 57 seconds Step back and look at the implications for the issues that are being thrown up by the story that you’re looking at. Seven, are you able to understand what offering a source anonymity means? Do you understand the term “on the record?” Do you understand the term “off the record?” Do you know what going “on background” means? These are important terms. And they are sometimes quite difficult to grasp the meaning of in practice. “On the record” usually means that when you speak to a witness, they have agreed for you to identify them and attribute the quotes or the information to them in the finished investigation.

Skip to 5 minutes and 40 seconds Going “off the record” means that in a limited way you can use some of their information but you can’t identify them. Going “on background” means that you can absorb and take on board the information a source has given you, but in no way, shape, or form can you identify them when it comes to the final project. You simply use their information in your head as context. It’s important as you proceed through any investigation that you understand these terms. They can have legal implications. One of the tools that investigative journalists, indeed all journalists, has at their disposal is using sources and offering a degree of anonymity and protection. Some investigative journalists have even gone to prison to protect their sources.

Skip to 6 minutes and 30 seconds In some of the most well-known investigations, secret sources with agreed protection and anonymity have been used, for example in The Washington Post’s Watergate investigation when Bob Woodward used his famous source, Deep Throat, to gain information which other people would not have been able to gain. Before you agree any kind of protection for your sources or agree to print any of their information, it’s important that you’re quite clear with them and with any editors that you’re using exactly what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Remember, they can have legal consequences. So it’s important that you understand the process you’re embarking upon before you give any agreements of protection.

Skip to 7 minutes and 20 seconds Eighth and finally, you have to evaluate the best form that your investigation can be published in. What’s the best outlet for it? Is it a lengthy printed feature which would work well in a magazine? Is it something that lends itself well to a radio programme? Is it a potential TV investigative documentary? In all cases, you should try and track down the commissioning editor who will give you a lead about whether or not it’s suitable for their outlet. To do this, simply drop them a one-page summary of your idea. Put it in its simplest terms. If they are interested, they’ll maybe invite you to discuss it further.

Skip to 8 minutes and 8 seconds If you decide to self-publish, maybe in a blog using a digital platform to host, whether it’s text, audio, or visual material or all of those, then be aware that it may be easy and relatively fast, but you are still required to meet high professional standards of proof and evidence. You are effectively your own publisher. And you must consider the ethical and legal rules before publishing that work to save yourself a lot of trouble and a lot of expense if someone decides to sue.

Skip to 8 minutes and 47 seconds It’s worth bearing in mind that even after a publication of an investigation, that those investigations don’t really end there. They simply move on to the next chapter.

Breaking down and evaluating a case

Potential investigative projects come in all shapes and sizes. You have to choose your toolkit and adapt your skills carefully and wisely. No two cases are the same.

  1. Ask yourself if - according to the classic definition of investigative journalism - the project at hand qualifies as a potential project worth your attention and hard work.

  2. Do basic research on the subject first. Learn about it carefully.

  3. Find documents. Use Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to source them. Read them forensically. Store them securely.

  4. Find people. Use Add-Ons (products designed to work in tandem with existing software and increase capability) and Search Engines to track them down. Online social media sites are useful too. Always be polite and considerate when approaching people for interviews or information.

  5. Don’t jump to conclusions. Avoid making facts fit a thesis. Your imaginary headline should come last - not first. Work from facts outwards - never a thesis inwards.

  6. Does the story have legal impact? What laws have been broken?

  7. Sometimes sources have to anonymous: Do you understand terms like ‘on the record’ and ‘off the record’? Know your terminology.

  8. Think about the best platform to publish your project. Is it a story in words? Do pictures matter a lot? Should it have online links too?

Please post any thoughts in the comments area.

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This video is from the free online course:

Introduction to Journalism

University of Strathclyde