Planning for investigative journalism

Image courtesy of Linus Bohman released under Creative CommonsA piece of investigative journalism needs to be focused and well planned.

If you don't have a plan you could end up making costly mistakes.

The first part in this series of four articles looked at validating a journalistic investigation - in other words making sure the idea was worth doing.

This second part deals with planning and how to ensure that all your work results in a piece of journalism that makes a difference.

Image courtesy of Linus Bohman released under Creative Commons

Asking and answering the right questions

The investigative journalism synopsis consists of some 70 questions and tasks aimed at helping journalists produce thorough and robust investigative jouranlism.

By answering the questions posed you should be able to put together a synopsis for your investigation that will help you construct your piece.

A well made synopsis may indicate whether the topic is valid and/or feasible at all. It should help the journalist work out how much they really know about the topic and it should help point them in the best direction for carrying out the investigation.

In the first article I set out the approach to the first, most important questions in the synopsis form which define the topic and our attitude towards it.

The first six questions

  • What do you want to say?
  • In what way do you want to say it?
  • What is the minimum story and what is the maximum story?
  • Why do you want to say it?
  • What is your motive?
  • For whom is the story important?

Within those six question are the answers to the remaining 60+ questions or tasks that this document places before the journalist. If we have answered the first six questions properly, we have defined the investigative hypothesis that has to be investigated and proven.

The next set under the heading “What are the most important questions in this case” should make it clear how much we do not know about the hypothesis. In other words, what we need to find out to make sure the hypothesis is valid. This will help ensure that piece of investigative journalism really will reveal something important.

Journalists have developed a mechanism of “selling” stories to editors, i.e. a way of convincing the editor to allow them to spend time on a particular topic. The problem is that sometimes, we also “sell” topics that are also attractive to us, even if we do not have enough facts about them.

Something is wrong

We sometimes rely on our professional instincts and that famous sentence: “Something is rotten here,” which is too often considered a sufficient reason to start working on a story.

I assume this is one of the chief reasons for so many undeveloped and unfinished stories in our media, which lack facts, context and a real reason for existence. In investigative reporting, this kind of mistake is even more costly because these are usually stories on which journalists spend a lot of time.

Imagine, for instance, that after working on a story for a month and a half, you realize the terrible truth that the topic you have been working on is not a topic at all, or that it simply cannot be investigated because there is no way to get the crucial facts. Very inconvenient.

Check Don Ray's training module The essential mindset for investigative journalism.

Reality check

The questions, therefore, are primarily meant to make journalists face the reality, for once they answer them, not only will they know how much more they need to find out about the topic, but they will also be able to predict how much time and work that will take.

Therefore: What are the most important questions in the case? The first question is:

What do you know and what do you presume?

It seems simple: list all reliable facts and then also what you presume to be facts. If you approach this job realistically, it will be clear to you how much you do not know, but more importantly, facts lined up this way will start to form causal relationships and thus determine their own significance. We should already try to classify them by significance.

What must you find out about?

Laws and regulations

The significance of legislative circumstances is very clear – investigative reporting deals first and foremost with exposing violations of the law.

An excellent example is an investigation carried out by a participant of our investigative reporting education program at NetNovinar Training Center, whose investigation into distribution of pornographic material depicting children in Serbia hit a wall, only to later find a loop-hole in Serbia’s law which became his central discovery for which he received an annual investigative reporting award.

If he had not studied the law in detail and had not been informed by experts about laws in the European Union and neighbouring countries, he would have missed the fact that possession of this kind of pornographic material is not even a misdemeanour in Serbia, which prevents police from investigating its origin.

In the information exchange chain among national police forces across the world, which is the most efficient means of combating this phenomenon, the poor law makes Serbia a weak or missing link.

In short, the journalist spotted something that the lawmakers, expert public and legislators had missed

In short, the journalist spotted something that the lawmakers, expert public and legislators had missed.

In addition to this exceptional case, we will mention a much more typical example.

One of our participants decided to write about organized prostitution in his city. He had a great plan, good sources in the police and judiciary, and he started to investigate. After investing a lot of effort and time, he discovered that prostitution, under the law in Serbia, is almost impossible to prove in court.

Suddenly his story turned into a series of estimations about the scope of the phenomenon, without tangible proof. The number of prostitution verdicts, it turned out, is so small, that officially it does not pose a problem in his city.

He had to return to the beginning of the story and to start looking for other ways to prove the scope of the phenomenon.

By then it was already too late, the time had almost run out, he was left without important discoveries and the story was never published.

If he had consulted laws and experts in this field on time, as the synopsis required him to do, he certainly would have made better use of his time.

Norms and common practice

Common practice and historic circumstances are not of crucial importance for all topics. In some cases they are entirely irrelevant, but it may also happen that they have crucial importance.

A colleague decided to investigate an armed incident in Kosovo in 1998, the first in a series of similar clashes which was to turn into real war that ended with the bombing of at the time FR Yugoslavia.

There was information that the clash, namely, had been deliberately provoked by one of the parties, which would mean that someone in Kosovo wanted open war.

The colleague rushed to the field without sufficient preparation only to discover that the whole region where the incident occurred had been in a state of permanent rebellion against any incumbent authority for several hundred years, that there were no Serbian army or police there at all, and that the population was so locked up in the rule of silence that it was almost impossible to investigate the affair.

He had to look for other topics on the spot because the one he went to get completely failed

He had to look for other topics on the spot because the one he went to get completely failed.

If he had tried on time to inform himself at least superficially about the history and customs of the region he was visiting, the first thing he would have found out was that he was not going to discover very much out there, as well as something else – that it was a very dangerous place for someone coming from the Serbian side, regardless of the professional objectivity of the outlet they worked for.

Two days after his visit to the region, the same people who were involved in the armed incident stopped a civilian car on the road and shot dead the innocent driver. That could have easily happened to him and his crew.


Statistical data is valuable in the majority of investigative stories, if it exists.

One of our participants is working on a story that is entirely based on statistical data – she discovered, namely, that on a short stretch of a road at least 10 people were killed in traffic accidents in the last several years.

Hence, it is necessary to determine not only exactly how many people were killed, hurt or involved in car accidents, as well as how many traffic accidents in total there were on this stretch of road in the mentioned period, but also to get the total data on accidents per kilometer on this category of roads.

It is also necessary to get the data for another stretch of the same road in order to establish if this is the usual number of accidents, deaths and injuries.

Of course, this is just the beginning. Later it will be necessary to establish why so many more accidents were happening precisely there. It might turn out, for example, that there is a popular café nearby, so people drink and drive, instead of the reason being poor signalization or the state of the road, which is the first assumption.

Whichever it is, statistical data in this case are the very essence of the story.

Another team of our participants was simply lucky regarding statistics. They tried to use the infiltration method to organize the purchase of an illegal weapon and thus prove that it is unusually easy (and cheap) to get hold of a gun in their city.

We, as their trainers and their editors on the investigative story, warned them that, even if they succeeded in their intention, they would only prove that they themselves have enough acquaintances to easily buy a gun, and that this does not have to be a norm at the level of the city or country without serious scientific research.

We asked them to use their intention only as an attractive element for the story and to find other ways to prove their hypothesis. Just as they were trying to find statistical data, they hit a gold mine. Namely, several non-governmental organizations, in cooperation with the Ministry of the Interior, had carried out a huge, extensive and very expensive research project in an attempt to estimate how much armament the civilian population of their country possesses.

The astonishing results of the research were revealed in a large publication which, for some reason, never reached the media. It is these statistical data that enabled them to create a story that earned them the front page of their daily paper.

Ethical considerations

Ethical considerations are a set of general rules of your own conduct and, if necessary, conduct of people whose actions you are investigating.

There are topics where ethical considerations are crucial. If we are dealing with children (child trafficking, child abuse, etc.), we will immediately lay down for ourselves the following ethical considerations:

  1. Whatever we do, there must be full protection of the identity of children and their parents,
  2. We will not directly question child victims of abuse, etc.

But, if we are dealing, for example, with a topic related to healthcare, we must also be acquainted with ethical considerations in the medical profession in order to be aware of their violations.

Be sure to go through this site’s training modules on editorial ethics.

Make a list of the most important questions

Having established all directions in which we should look for the context and valid facts, let us turn our story into questions.

What is the most important question of your story? Well, there are not many rules here, except one – do not skip questions because the answers to them are obvious.

If the most important question of your topic is: “Is there corruption in the Serbian government,” you should write it down, although we all know the answer.

For, the next question is crucial: “How do we prove that?” Without the former, there is no latter. Then we will classify the questions in order of importance.

Of course, this example of the Serbian government is theoretical and humorous, but one of our participants had a good, although too broad a topic.

She could not decide how to find a focus because there were several possible discoveries worth the effort. Still, when she tried to make a list of the most important questions for her topic, the second question on the list instantly helped her.

We cannot write what the topic is because the story has not been published yet, but the key question was: “How can I find that out?” It turned out that she had a good source in the state administration for just one of the possible focuses.

Feasibility dictated the topic and its minimum.

You never know in advance what this segment of the synopsis might reveal. When we turn our brain into the brain of a tedious and hair-splitting editor, we may rebut our topic, or certainly question it in a few minutes.

This is a big favour that you better do yourself on time, instead of having the editor do it when you present your proposal for the topic. It is even worse if the editor does not do it either and you rush into an investigation without giving it much thought.

The next segment of the synopsis deals with the classification of facts:

Who can verify it?

Make a list of information that needs verification and confirmation.

The essence of this task – and question – is that if you do not have proof that someone is doing something bad, it is not verified information.

However, most of our participants come from newsrooms where the standards concerning verification, confirmation and the proof of facts are considerably lower than in journalism in developed countries.

Within a broader subject, one of our participants cited as a wrongdoing committed by a powerful director of a monopolistic state-owned company the building of a road with a marked railway crossing to his village, while residents of other villages along the railway line were regularly getting killed on “illegal” crossings.

It was logical that the strongman had “arranged” the crossing for himself, but the “proof” we found – a signed building decision – signalled the opposite. The decision, namely, had been passed a full year before the strongman became what he is now – the director of a company that can build a road and mark a crossing.

Maybe he could have obtained this for himself through other channels without going through the regular procedure, but that too would have to be proven.

If you list all pieces of information that you have yet to verify or prove, you can start looking for ways to verify each one of them, confirm and prove them.

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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