Getting started with the Investigative Synopsis


image by Media Helping Media and released under Creative CommonsThe Investigative Synopsis is a free guide to help investigative journalists produce high-quality journalism.

It's being used in training courses in many parts of the world.

It sets out a check-list of the questions and actions needed to complete a meaningful and authoritative piece of investigative journalism. 

What is your basic hypothesis?

  • What do you want to tell?
    • What is your hypothesis and angle expressed in a few words? 
    • Narrow it down: 
      • What is the maximum story expressed in a headline? 
      • What is the minimum story? 
  • Which specific stories could be a possible outcome? 
    • Assess the feasibility of the stories? 
  • Why do you want to tell it? 
    • What is your motive personally and politically? 
    • For whom is the story important? 
    • Do you want to: 
      • explain the public on causes and consequences? 
      • describe an unrecognized part of real life? 
      • reveal secrets, presenting new knowledge? 
      • predict or forecast a situation? 
      • convince the audience of your own understanding? 

What are the most important questions in this case?

  • List your knowledge: 
    • What do I know 
    • What do I presume? 
  • Base building which basic knowledge must I find? 
    • How is it supposed to be? 
      • according to laws and regulations? 
      • according to norms and common practice? 
    • What is your own conception of the problem? 
    • History Statistics 
    • What are the ethical considerations? 
  • State the topic as a series of important questions. 
  • Initiate a list of information that needs verification and confirmation. 
    • Who can verify or confirm? 

Who are the stakeholders?

  • Make a Who is Who stakeholder analysis (see below).
  • Who are against the publishing of the story? 
    • internal in your own news organisation? 
    • external amongst the stakeholders? 
  • Who might turn on you as enemies on this? 
    • what are the dangers? 
    • how can you protect yourself? 
  • Who could be your allied in obtaining information? 
    • do you need an inside informer and how to find? 
  • How can the audience use the information? 
    • Who is the target audience? 
    • What shall the target audience do if anything? 

The who is who analysis of stakeholders


  • Who is: 
    • directly affected by the problem? 
    • directly involved in the problem? 
    • directly involved in the dealing with the problem? 
    • indirectly affected by the problem? 
    • not involved, but aware of the problem? 
    • inspecting the problem on behalf of the public? 
  • Who might be: 
    • affected by the problem in future? 
    • involved in the solution of the problem? 
    • influential on decisions concerning the problem? 
    • final decision makers? 
  • Who has been: 
    • affected by this or similar problems? 
    • part of negotiations and decisions? 
    • influential on decisions? 
    • dealing with similar problems? 
    • researching the problem scientifically? 
    • commenting on this or similar problems previously? 
  • Who represents: 
    • directly affected and involved persons and groups? 
    • persons and groups affected by or involved in similar problems? 
    • persons and groups likely to affected or involved? 
  • Who has first hand knowledge on: 
    • personal experience with the problem? 
    • scientific research or surveys of the problem? 
    • decisions? 
    • rules and practices in the field? 
    • similar problems? 
  • Who knows: 
    • about the causes and background? 
    • consequences? 
    • decision makers in the field? 
  • Who will gain: 
    • if the problem is exposed in public? 
    • if the problem is solved? 
    • by status quo? 
  • Who will loose: 
    • if the problem is exposed in public? 
    • if the problem is solved? 
    • by status quo? 
  • Who earns? 
  • Who looses? 
  • Who pays? 
    • Always follow the money. 
  • Who cares anyway? 
    • remember your audience. 

Assess the reliability of the sources

  • Ask yourself if the sources are: 
    • real (as existing, not pretending to be)? 
    • close to the events (in time and space)? 
    • primary sources (opposite secondary sources)? 
    • having open or hidden motives (also experts)? 
    • blinded by opinion, prejudice, interests, fear, personal repression or the like. 

Research strategy and plan of action


Organise your sources

  • List oral sources in order of priority. 
  • Define sources as background, sources for quotation and key sources. 
  • Define sources as primary or secondary sources. 
  • List sources according to their 
    • Human interest/personal experience 
    • partisanship 
    • independent expert knowledge. 
  • Estimate all sources as possible allies, neutral or hostile to your work. 
  • How and when will you get access to them? 
  • Is there any legal or ethical problems involved? 
  • How can you protect sources who need protection? 
  • List written sources 
  • Define sources as background documents and key documents 
  • Define sources as direct accessible or difficult accessible 
  • Which sources could be downloaded or examined via Internet? 
  • How will you get access to the difficult accessible? 
  • Is there any legal or ethical problems involved? 
  • List locations for reportage and observations 
  • Are the locations accessible? 
  • How will you get access? 
  • Can you get photos (print media), clean sound (radio) or live pictures (tv). 
  • Is there any legal or ethical problems involved? 

How to organise and analyse the information

  • Considerations on filing and evaluation paper notes, computer files, cross references 
  • Considerations processing the information, including CAR (computer-assisted reporting) methods 
  • Need for the use of experts and coach 

How best to present the story

  • What does the audience need to know? 
    • and what is nice to know?
  • How can you include the audience? 
    • in terms of presenting the information in a clear way using sidebars, fact boxes, human interest stories? 
    • in terms of sharing documentation with the audience (e.g. printed in full or on a webpage) 
    • in terms of letting the audience in on your process of investigation 
    • in terms of informing the audience on the editorial policy on the matter 
    • in terms of inviting the readers to participate, on a webpage, with letters, tips 
  • Can or should the story be presented as news, as in depth feature, as a narrative story or other model?
    • can you illustrate the key story with documented cases? 
    • can you organize the presentation as case studies? 
  • Should it be published as one major article or program? 
  • Could it be presented as a well prepared series of articles or programs? 
    • Could it be published continuously before the full research is terminated? 
    • Is the story suitable for campaign journalism? 
    • Do you need a logo for the series/campaign? 
  • Should your media run editorials on the problem? 

Planning the time and effort involved

  • How much time do you need? 
    • Estimate working hours. 
    • Estimate the need period of time. 
  • Considerations on cooperation 
    • individual research, 
    • need for team work (and the roles of the team members) 
    • the need for photographers/camera crew and when? 
    • assistance from colleagues 
    • involvement of specialist from outside the media organisation 
    • cooperation with colleagues from other media 

Setting out a research strategy

  • Write up all the above answers as a research strategy 
    • list the task in chronological order of studies, interview, observations, analysis 
    • make an estimated time schedule for the research 
    • allow time for processing and analysing. 
    • estimate need for and timing of editorial involvement, such as stages of cooperation, consultation with the media's lawyers, go/nogo meetings, coaching, revision. 

During the process of research you need to assess and analyse:

  • Considerations on the information gathered: 
    • information that turns an assumption into a fact 
    • information as pieces that fit the puzzle or doesn't fit 
    • information as gapclosing, solving a conflict in the material
    • information that raise new questions 
    • information that still needs confirmation. 
  • Preparation of the key interviews: 
    • update list of questions to ask 
    • list key questions that calls for confirmation 
    • make a plan for the interview 
      • how to keep control? 
      • define roles and venue of interview 
    • when and how will you get the appointments? 
  • Return to investigative synopsis and adjust it 
    • readjust the plan of action, including organisation of sources 
    • reconsider the presentation. 
  • How will you follow up after publishing? 
    • what are the reactions you can expect? 
    • how can you secure to get an impact at all?

Mind mapping

Image courtesy of For Inspiration Only released under Creative CommonsYou might also want to make a mind map on sources.

The mind map is a useful tool for journalists to develop our ideas and to find sources for our stories. 

It helps you draw connections between ideas, leads, contacts, etc..

You can always call on your colleagues to help brainstorming and record it on any piece of paper.

Image courtesy of For Inspiration Only released under Creative Commons

All the articles in this series of five

  1. The investigative synopsis - by Lars Moller
  2. Validating a journalistic investigation - by Branko Cecen
  3. Planning for investigative journalism - by Branko Cecen
  4. Identifying stakeholders - by Branko Cecen
  5. Analysing the findings of investigative journalism - by Branko Cecen

Lars MollerLars Møller is a freelance reporter, trainer and media consultant who works with media development organisations providing support worldwide. The Investigative Synopsis can be used under the terms of Creative Commons BY-NC-ND



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