Digging for facts - a crucial part of investigative journalism

Image courtesy of Sam Love and released under Creative CommonsA journalistic investigation involves, more than anything, digging through paperwork, finding documents, painstaking and detailed reading of business, legal and other documents.

This can be where the biggest discoveries lie and where the evidence exists.

And as a foundation for this work it’s important to have an investigative synopsis to work from.

Image courtesy of Sam Love and released under Creative Commons

The complexity of investigative journalism

Journalists don't have to set out a synopsis for every investigation they carry out, however many mistakes can be avoided if a piece of investigative journalism is planned from the original idea through to the production of the final report.

What is your basic hypothesis?

The first segment of the synopsis sets our basic questions for all journalists. If good answer to these questions that are short and clear then you probably need to take a step back and do what’s necessary to ensure the story is worth the effort.

What do you want to say?

This question is the basic requirement for a clear and valuable story title. But a good answer conveyed in a short sentence will suffice.

If you have to elaborate in detail what it is about, and if after reading or hearing that one sentence even laymen do not say: “Wow,” or at least: “Interesting,” go back to the computer. Something is amiss. Usually the missing element is an insufficiently far-reaching consideration of the topic.

The so what test

A participant in our program chose music CD piracy in his country as his topic. His answer to the first question was: “I want to say that millions of discs are illegally produced and that people are earning millions while the state is losing them.” Our counter-question was: “So what?”

We all know that millions of discs are illegally produced in his country, we all know that money flows into the pockets of the “wrong” people, we all know that the state is losing huge amounts of money. Spending five to six months of investigation to finally come up with an assertion of what everyone knows is almost pointless. But only one word is missing: prove.”

The media have written about it, many music stars have complained, many record companies have whined, but no one has ever proved anything. If the young colleague was able to prove that at least one person, or a group of people, was earning (quite a lot of) money this way, that would be progress. With proof in your hand, the question to the police and prosecution: “Why aren’t you doing anything” cannot be met with the answer: “It’s hard to prove it.”

A colleague knew about a traffic accident in which the perpetrator, allegedly thanks to connections, avoided answering for the death of three people. He also had indication that the man was linked to organized crime and he wanted to prove this through a story on how the man avoided prosecution in the above-mentioned case.

There is no doubt that the story would be important for the families of the victims and the perpetrator, but it would not be investigative. An investigative story is, by its nature, important to a large number of citizens and should benefit them by illuminating an issue and urging society to act. An experienced investigative journalist would try to use the case as a trail toward finding evidence about the organized criminal group, asking “Who let this man go unpunished and why” and following the trail to an organization or person powerful enough to have been able to ensure an omission in the system.

If the journalist did not succeed in this, he or she could check if the perpetrator had gone through the state apparatus unpunished at other times as well or if that part of the state apparatus that “missed” him this time had done so in some other cases as well, and thus raise this corruption case to the level of a systematic error that concerns everyone in the society.

In what way do you want to say it?

It is not all the same how we present what we discover. It may be an ordinary interview with a key source. Maybe a piece of reportage that along with facts brings a deeply emotional picture of their consequences? Or maybe the whole investigation will produce just one very extensive report in a daily paper? A series of articles? A book?

More important is whether we are going after direct, undisputed evidence that can be used in court or are we just able to collect facts showing that a wrongdoing was committed.

The topic will necessarily dictate the form and the way we tell the audience that something unlawful was committed. The form is just a means.

Choose a means that will present most adequately the facts that you intend to discover or prove to the audience that the story is intended for. Choose what will attract the biggest audience, expand the target group.

However, if you do not determine the form on time, you will not be able to investigate with awareness of the requirements for delivering the piece.

Of course you will certainly not leave a single important fact without proof or verification, but if you do not bear in mind that you will present them in a reportage, you may not pay attention to reportage elements.

If everything boils down to an interview, and you make this decision toward the end of the investigation, who knows if your key source will be in the mood for an interview, whether they will be healthy, available or even alive? Think about this in advance.

If you want to crown your story with a particular conclusion, you must establish a perfect logical sequence of facts pointing to that conclusion.

If you remember this towards the end of the available time, you may have a problem again with providing facts, sources or documentation for some things that may not be crucial to the essence of the issue, but that are essential for the logical sequence leading to the desired conclusion.

What is the minimum story and what is the maximum story?

The importance of this question in the synopsis cannot be stressed enough. The minimum investigative story is the least that must be discovered and proven for the story to be an investigative one.

To recall, it is investigative (by minimal requirements) if you discover something concealed or unknown, important to a large number of people, which you have reached through your own work (instead of someone whispering it to you and you just conveying it).

What is the minimum that meets these requirements?

What is the minimum that makes your time and work wisely spent?

The maximum, on the other hand, is a matter of imagination. Let yourself dream and create it in the spirit of enthusiasm with which you started working in journalism. “I’ll expose the mafia and its connections to the government and send them all to jail.”

Imagination is good for professional enthusiasm. Then create a reasonable maximum, in case your investigation gets off to a good start.

Your entire synopsis will focus on the minimum. For, if you do not accomplish it, you will have not done anything. But if you do achieve it, then the sky is the limit.

Who knows where the time that was well spent will take you, time that the newsroom will probably be inclined to make available to you after you put on the table the rarest of all beasts in our journalism forests: important, proven facts that someone is hiding.

Who knows how you will use the professional authority that these kinds of stories generate among colleagues.

Therefore – focus on the minimum. Let us achieve that first, and everything will be much easier after that. Hence, we must choose it very carefully.

A participant chose the topic of pornographic material filmed using children, which is distributed via the internet. He established the minimum by deciding to catch at least one person involved in this in Serbia.

The maximum was to discover a paedophile network. Not only did it turn out to be absolutely impossible to catch anyone in the act, but it also turned out to be exceptionally difficult to enter even these people’s internet presentation.

Finally, it became clear that this is very dangerous too, because some police agency in the world can easily identify you as a visitor, notify your local police, and it would be difficult to explain to them that you are a journalist on an assignment. The penalty could be many years in prison.

We had to change the minimum, but we really did not know in what direction. When his first minimum crashed, the participant went back to the synopsis and started looking for other directions for the investigation. What was clear from the rest of the synopsis was that since the passing of a law regulating this area, only three people were convicted on these grounds.

Let us try going in this direction, we thought – three persons is rather little. In the end, our participant received an annual investigative reporting award for his discovery; however, he discovered information that brought him the award in a completely unexpected place to which we turned as a consolation award - in legislation.

He studied the law and concluded that due to a stupid omission, Serbia remained a black hole in the international police information chain, the most efficient means of battling paedophile internet pornography.

Even the lawmakers had not thought of it, and neither had participants in a public discussion, or the parliament that adopted it.

Continual work on creating a realistic, viable minimum, which at the same time is a valuable discovery, greatly helped this journalist on the road to the investigative reporting award.

His investigation was painstaking, long and very frustrating. He demonstrated he was up to the job.

Why do you want to say it?

What a silly question! Yeah, until you really try answering it. And then -- it may really be quite easy, but usually that is not the case.

The number of topics that fail when faced with this question is no less than on any other question from this segment of the synopsis.

The answer: “Because it is important,” is good, but incomplete. Important and socially useful to be revealed? Warm, warm. Important, useful and interesting to a large number of readers? Hot. Important, useful, interesting and I care about it? Bingo.

For each one of these reasons there is a “Why”. Why is it important? What are the consequences? From the consequences we extract the sources. From the sources the answers.

From the answers the facts. And why it is useful? Why is it interesting? But the answer to the last “why” (“Why do I care about it?”) is a potential trap. That is why the next question exists.

What is your motive (for working on this topic)?

One participant wanted to write about how in a state institution the religious rights of citizens with whom the institution deals with were threatened. A good story, we approved it, but the synopsis asked a question that completely disqualified the topic.

Why was it important to him? Well, because he was volunteering in that institution in the field of religion. Not only was it unethical to reveal something told to him in this capacity, but anyone could later raise the question of the journalist’s objectivity.

You may not be objectively connected to a topic, but you might be passionately in favour of one of the sides in advance in an honest and human way.

We all make value judgments. We all almost constantly side with certain options in politics, sports, society. Therefore ask yourself what is your motive before throwing yourself on another, crucially important segment of the investigative synopsis and your investigation.

For whom is the story important?

This question is the first step in an uncertain wandering through the forest of possible sources for the story. In investigative journalism, you are not allowed to skip a source.

Not because a judge will blow his whistle and eliminate you from the game for not following the rules, but because a missed (important) source may throw into question the entire story, the entire investigation on which you have spent a lot of time and effort.

This first question about sources in the synopsis is a bag into which you will throw everyone in this world – individual, group or institution – to whom your topic is in any way a little more important than to the casual passer-by.

Start from those for whom it is the most important, from those directly involved, victims, good guys, bad guys.

Then go through those whose job it is and a life interest, all the way to public groups that are more interested in the story than others.

You will draw from this bag later, when the synopsis makes you define the good sources, the friendly, hostile or neutral ones, figure out who must have the documentation (and who else if that one does not give it to you).

But, if you do not fill the bag now, if you do not throw someone inside now, it may happen that if you need them in a hurry you may not remember them.

It may happen that by accident you come across someone unavailable. If you did not define them as a source earlier, you will not even know who they are, let alone that they are important to your story.

By answering the question “For whom is the story important,” you will ultimately get a list of everyone interested, informed, involved, to which you can return in those desperate moments when you hit a wall, when it seems that no one is giving the necessary information and that you cannot find it anywhere.

You can always go back to the list to check if you really tried everything. It is surprising how often you will find a solution there that you had not thought of for a while.

One of our participants tried to investigate abuses committed by a person in a high position in her town. She discovered more and more wrongdoings, even criminal acts, but there was little proof and it was fragmented.

Somewhere among the sources, the participant had mentioned the name of a man that she had seen in court files as being in a dispute with the person who was the focus of the investigation.

She had written down his name only because she was thorough – as the dispute concerned a relatively unimportant matter. He was among the last sources she contacted, when everyone else had turned her down or was of no use.

It turned out that this man was very capable and willing to provide a whole series of documents directly proving the criminal acts committed by the person at the center of the piece.

Be warned: many investigations turn into infinite mazes of documents, witnesses, texts, laws, interests that cross, companies, owners, stockholders, amounts of money, bank accounts.

If you do the synopsis right, it will keep you on the right track; it will not let you leave “holes” in the story – questions without answers, facts without verification.

It will keep you focused on the minimum, it will tell you what is important and what is secondary, what is important now and what will be important later.

Of course, the synopsis will not do this on its own, going after you and whispering in your ear what you should do. It is just a means, a tool, which requires a pair of hardworking hands, an active brain and persistent determination to make it truly useful. But if you do not have the above, you better make effort to acquire it, or you are in the wrong profession.

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

Branko CecenBranko Cecen is the Director/Editor-in-chief of CINS - Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia. He is a university lecturer, media trainer, consultant, reporter and editor with more than 20 year of experience in Serbian media.

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