Options and conclusions
The way to ‘end’ an investigative article is often a delicate balancing act.
The investigation itself may have yielded a clear set of findings or outcomes. In that case it is quite straightforward to deliver these conclusions. You list them, explain their probable meaning and convey them in a measured, proportionate and balanced way. Even if the conclusion is startlingly obvious, understatement is the best way to proceed. Be cautious and careful. These outcomes may end in a court of law. It’s best to consider how your prose would sound echoing around a courtroom if it came to pass. Be measured and considerate.
If your findings indicate a legal impact, then seek expert legal advice on what the possible implications could be. This might assist in editing the final version. You may want to add-in the findings of your legal counsel, or indeed you may want to cut some facts in case they might lead to accusations of unwarranted influence on legal proceedings down the line, bias or defamation.
Investigative stories often continue in one form or another after the final piece has been published. In these digital times, articles published online attract wide comment and attention. This can lead to unseen developments very quickly. Your audience may well serve up new information which drives the whole project in a completely new direction that you never envisaged. New witnesses, for example, can emerge from the shadows, unaware their nugget of information was of any evidential value whatsoever.
Once in a while you will find yourself investigating a topic which simply doesn’t pan out. Many an alleged murder has turned out, all too tragically, to have been a suicide. This can mean the story doesn’t run, no matter how powerful a human interest aspect their might be to it. Occasionally, the twists and turns of an article like this can lead to writing something like ‘the story of the investigation’. You end up turning the spotlight on yourself to tell the tale of how your initial investigation took you in a very different and surprising, but no less challenging and engaging direction. But this tends to be the exception to the rule. In most cases like this, a word with a more experienced colleague or editor, where you lay out the facts and explain where the matter stands, will lead to a story being quietly dropped. For the best editors – and journalists - -there is no shame in this at all. You live and learn. And, more often than not – maybe a little wiser - you walk straight into your next story. Do not be tempted to over-egg the pudding and try and turn a damp squib of an investigation into a semi-fictional firecracker. This will only give you a one day wonder and headline – but ultimately it’ll also yield many weeks’ worth of headaches as you deal with those who know the truth coming forward to complain.
Finally, if your investigation proves to lead to a messy ending, perhaps delivering complex findings that were the reverse of what you suspect – but no less surprising – then be willing to print them and explore their meaning. It’s human nature to try and predict outcomes. Journalists are not immune to this trait. We are not very rational species. But remember to always ‘Work from the facts outwards: Never a thesis inwards.’ Let the facts indicate the direction of the truth. Let them dictate how you headline and explain your story.
The old saying ‘Never let facts get in the way of a good story’ was the rightful undoing of many a poor journalist. Instead, when it comes to investigations, let the facts – however difficult and challenging – dictate and guide you towards a good story. Do your best, within a solid ethical and legal framework, to tell the story you have in front of you. It might not be what you envisaged but it is what you have produced. Anyway, you may get another crack at it another time.
As the great Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame once remarked, the best journalism is always about trying to get ‘the best obtainable version of the truth…’
© University of Strathclyde