Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the University of Strathclyde's online course, Introduction to Journalism. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 10 seconds The basic tools of investigative journalism are very straightforward. Most of them are simple common sense, frankly. However, it’s important to have a simple checklist ready before you begin any investigative project. Let’s run through the various tools that I think are important before you start your investigations. Number one, access to a laptop, a tablet, or a PC is obviously vital. You need to be able to use it efficiently. And you need to be mobile as well. Journalists often work in difficult locations, so it’s important that you’re flexible. Two, you should have secure storage in some shape or form for your research. You should be capable of using basic kit, like external thumb drives and hard drives.

Skip to 0 minutes and 55 seconds Basic encrypted programmes that involve pretty good privacy, PGP software, is also very useful. Three, recording equipment, whether it’s a basic pen and notepaper or a good digital tape recorder, is also vital. You can use your recording facility on a mobile phone if you’re caught in a pinch. Download and store copies in a secure place online or in hard copy form. Four, your mobile phone can also be used as a decent still and video camera again if you’re in a tight corner. But you should, if you can afford it, invest in a small digital camera. Don’t go for a bulky one which will announce yourself as a journalist.

Skip to 1 minute and 37 seconds When you’re working on an investigation, it’s best to be as unobtrusive as possible. Five, you should really hone up your online skills, because they can save time and money. You should be able to use search engines efficiently. You should understand how add-ons work for certain search engines. Learn how to track down old sites, sites that people no longer want the public to see, via specialist websites. You should also be able to track down who runs a website, because appearances can be deceptive. You should source programmes while you’re doing that to allow you to do your investigations online anonymously. You should, for example, think about using virtual private networks which allow you to conceal your identity.

Skip to 2 minutes and 30 seconds Or you can also use anonymous email addresses, which expire rapidly after you’ve finished your communications. These are just a few of the multitude of digital tools available to help you find sources and information. Third on our checklist, building a good contact book is essential for all journalists, but for those doing investigations, even more so. You build your contacts book with care and precision. Try and find out who the best people to speak to, and then ask them for help for your next contact. Bear in mind if you speak to official sources that they often say official things, so consider approaching someone lower down the professional ladder. Look at the minutes of publicly available minutes at meetings, for example.

Skip to 3 minutes and 20 seconds Is there anyone on that list that can help you? Old press clippings and news reports can also be vital in yielding good leads. Use your online skills to track people down. You should also consider visiting locations in person. Look around the area that you’re interested in. Is there someone in that vicinity who’s been overlooked by previous inquiries? Could they maybe tell you something that no one has bothered to ask them before? Work hard, put the hours in, and slowly your contacts list will build. Four on our checklist, interpersonal skills are a vital part of any investigative journalist’s toolkit. You’ve got to consider carefully what the best way to approach someone is.

Skip to 4 minutes and 8 seconds Should you send them a letter, an email, or simply turn up in person? When is it appropriate ethically and legally to turn up in person. If you do meet someone in person, you must evaluate your safety. This is not being melodramatic. It’s using common sense. Can and should you meet them in their home? Or would a public place be safer and better? Sometimes I’ve found that simply sketching out what the project is to your source can break the ice. But you’ve got to be careful you don’t go too far sometimes and put them off helping you out at all.

Skip to 4 minutes and 47 seconds Whistle-blowers, for example, are sources that often have an axe to grind, so journalists need to tread warily when dealing with them. You should remind yourself that you’re trying to build a balanced and powerful investigate project, not act as free public relations for whatever their cause with their employers is or are. If you’re handed documents during a meeting, or other specialised material, be ready to research their authenticity and value properly. Don’t rush to publish them. Documents are sometimes the gold standard. But if you make a mistake, they can be a dreadful pitfall as well.

Skip to 5 minutes and 27 seconds The annals of investigative journalism are littered with beginners and experienced stars who have got caught out by publishing documents too fast because the story was literally too good to check them out. Fifth on our list, be self-aware. And what I mean by that is know when you’re out of your depth. If you’re investigating a complex and technical subject, consider approaching an expert for help and guidance. Universities are full of them. If you think you need help, don’t hesitate to contact an expert and say, look. I’m not sure where this is going. I’m not sure what this means. Can you advise me please? Good experts can spot a serious or a ridiculous story a mile off.

Skip to 6 minutes and 12 seconds They can save you time, energy, and trouble. And they can help you avoid embarrassment if you make elementary mistakes. Sixth, it’s an important part of your toolkit to always be prepared for interviews. You must do your research about the subject and the individual that you’re interviewing. List your questions carefully. If time is short, narrow them down to a handful of core questions. Test and practise your recording equipment. Make sure your pen is working. And always arrive on time or earlier to meet your subject. It’s important you convey a professional, purposeful demeanour and image. You should even consider dressing a certain way that’s appropriate and conveys the message that you think is important about you and your work. Learn to listen.

Skip to 7 minutes and 7 seconds Not all journalist are good at this at first. It’s an important skill. I repeat, learn to listen. You must be curious. You must be polite and measured too. A simple tip. Despite all the movies and dramas, avoid alcohol during any interviews with subjects. It never ends well. If you find your subject is being careful in their answers, then try and spot what they’re doing. To paraphrase Arthur Conan Doyle, try and find the dog that is no barking in the night. Sometimes what someone is not saying can be as interesting and indicative of something important as what they are saying. If the interview doesn’t go well, back off politely and firmly. Re-evaluate and consider what your next move is.

Skip to 7 minutes and 56 seconds Nine on our checklist, understand the pros and corns of using Freedom of Information requests in investigative projects. They are time-consuming, and they don’t always yield specific information. You should also know the rules. Read the small print in your country or jurisdiction about deadlines and appeals procedures. Budget for copying material if required. Be ready to be refused time and time again. Understand when it’s correct to appeal and to whom. Read your documents released under FOI laws carefully. Try and spot what the hidden nugget or gem is in them. You should consider when it is important to use an FOI request as part of a wider investigation. Be very careful about trying to build the whole project around an FOI request.

Skip to 8 minutes and 50 seconds These can sometimes be fishing expeditions. And unless you’re acting on a precise tipoff about a document which you can request specifically under FOI legislation, it’s best to remember that these FOI requests for documents can sometimes prove very labour-intensive and often fruitless. Ten, we’ve already spoken about the need for security. It’s important that you plan out as part of your toolkit a proper secure protocol for storing your material. Only store low-grade material in online clouds. If you must use them for international projects, examine some which have zero knowledge of the contents. If you use thumb drives, treat them with care. They’re easily lost. And make sure if possible that they’re encrypted.

Skip to 9 minutes and 49 seconds If you’re handling paper documents, then store them the old-fashioned way, in a filing cabinet with a key and a lock. The tools of the trade for investigative journalism, as I’ve said, are mostly common-sense-based practises. New digital technology, however, has given us both opportunities and potential new threats. Base your toolkit on recognising the difference between the two and act accordingly and proportionally. Many stories, though, still remain refreshingly human. You will have to meet people face-to-face. So be ready to approach sources in a professional and considerate way, within legal and ethical frameworks. Only when you take your own work and your tools seriously will others start to do likewise. Thanks.

Tools, tips and recommendations

  1. Basic journalistic kit ranges from pens and paper to laptops. Ensure access to the right tools. Use the right tools for the right job. Be flexible.

  2. Store your work safely online - use solid passwords. Be careful with flash-drives - they’re easily lost. Use PGP software where possible for secure communications.

  3. Record your work on digital recorders or your phone’s function: Use online clouds carefully. Use passwords and encryption.

  4. Phones and digital cameras can take still and video images. Don’t be obtrusive. Shoot in a low-key style.

  5. Use the internet efficiently. Learn a few basic skills like finding Add-Ons for your search engine to optimise your work. Work smarter - not harder. Learn how to be anonymous online in your searches and communications.

  6. Contacts are vital. Build your network through personal interaction. Use one contact to lead you to another. Get to the know the people behind the names and titles.

  7. Work on your inter-personal skills. Dealing with people in the flesh is still at the heart of journalism. Arrange meetings carefully. Be aware of your surroundings. Be careful with whistleblowers who have axes to grind.

  8. Consult experts when you get out of your depth. Ask for second opinions too.

  9. Prepare carefully for interviews. Work on refining core questions on key themes. Listen careful during interviews. Avoid alcohol - it always interferes with the ethical process.

  10. Freedom of Information requests can be a good source of information. But they can be time-consuming and complex. Use your judgement.

  11. Be ethical, professional and stay curious.

Please post any responses in the comments area.

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Introduction to Journalism

University of Strathclyde