The importance of listing stakeholders

Image courtesy of Robert Higgins released under Creative CommonsAn investigative journalist must draw up a detailed list of those interested in the success of our story or its non-publication.

The list helps us predict threats to the investigation posed by those against it and to try to protect ourselves from them.

Part three in this series of modules on investigative journalism provides examples that point to the importance of identifying the stakeholders.

The list helps us predict threats, find sources and insiders missed at first glance, and predict our target audience reactions.

Image courtesy of Robert Higgins released under Creative Commons.

The synopsis of an investigative story, produced by Danish journalist Lars Moller, is an attempt to organize an investigation well on time, i.e. before we start it, and to plan it comprehensively in order to avoid traps and mistakes.

A well made synopsis can help journalists tell whether their topics are valid and/or feasible at all, how much they really know about them, it can point them in the best direction of investigation, and it can do much more that will save a lot of their time and prevent them from going into “blind alleys” during the investigation.

In the previous parts of this series about the synopsis, we looked at how to validate a piece of investigative journalism and then went on to look at how to plan our investigation.

We also organized the most important questions about the subject of our investigation and approached the first level of organization of information that is at our disposal, and based on which we are to start the investigation. .

In the third part, we start by examining who might be interested in our work – from those directly involved in the story to its future audience.

Logically, the segment of the synopsis form that deals with this is called:

Who are the stakeholders?

Although evidence (documents, recordings, photographs) are the Holy Grail of investigative reporting, people are the ones who do the bad things that we investigate.

In addition, it is people who usually point out topics of investigation, give us much needed expert know-how and lead us to evidence.

This is why educational programs in investigative (as well as classical) reporting devote a lot of time to working with sources.

Before a reporter begins establishing contacts and setting up interviews, however, it is important to make a list of all the people that we know that we will need to talk to at that moment.

By failing to talk to a potential source, a reporter may compromise the story by using incorrect information or missing crucial findings

By failing to talk to a potential source, a reporter may compromise the story by using incorrect information or missing crucial findings.

On the other hand, you never know which source, even if it seems the most irrelevant at first, might tell you something unusually important.

We repeat this several times – investigations are a big investment in time, energy, even money. It would be stupid to jeopardize the success of such an endeavor by skipping people who seem “less important” sources to us or we think they would just repeat something another source has already told us.

All sources can serve at least for placing the information we acquire into a broader context, verifying it, finding new sources. Not all of them will tell you something important, but some of them will. You cannot know in advance which one of them is the one that will bring you the key findings.

This is why investigative reporters act broadly when they make lists of sources, talking to all people who are directly connected to what they are writing about.

Make a list of everyone who may be interested in the success of your story

These are the people who know something about what interests you and who have, by the nature of their work, a place or involvement in the topic, and above all an interest for you to succeed in your intention.

Of course, the help of an honest person is welcome, someone who wants to help you for moral reasons, although your success cannot affect directly or significantly his or her personal or business situation.

However, it is more likely, much more likely, that you will get help from those to whom it pays off (which is why, of course, you will double-check their information).

There are two things, however, that you should not lose sight of.

First, those who by the nature of things should be friendly towards your investigation, although common sense says so, may turn out to pose a major obstruction.

For example, one of our participants, thanks to being cautious, “caught on” in timely manner in regards to the position of police in a car smuggling case that was part of his investigation into organized crime and high business in his town.

Members of a special police unit were involved in smuggling and the local police was not inclined to see the names of their colleagues from the elite police unit dragged through the newspapers in the context of cross-border crime.

It is precisely the position of the police and the prosecutor’s offices, who are in charge of exposing, investigating and prosecuting, very characteristic of the ambivalent nature of identifying those who are interested in the success of an investigative story.

On one hand, they are on the same task as you, but on the other, sooner or later someone will ask the state law enforcement agencies the following question:

“How come a journalist, who doesn’t have your rights, powers, resources and staff, succeeds in proving a crime, and you don’t?”

This is why they are not necessarily pleased that you are exposing big illegal affairs and publishing that in the media.

Therefore – this list is temporary and whoever you place on it, you must always check a source’s attitude to the success of the story and always doubt it.

Follow the interest and keep checking it. Enter all your know-how and changes in the synopsis.

Who is interested in the story not being published (inside your news organization and externally)?

In this category, first list those who are most interested in your not succeeding and then others, from those who are most interested in the story not being published downward, by the intensity of animosity towards you.

The small note in the brackets, however, stirs different reactions among those who encounter the synopsis for the first time.

This question is even asked by journalists in countries where the influence of politics, business, police and other external factors on decisions made by media professionals is lesser than in our region, and in addition is denounced as something immoral and prohibited.

However, all experienced journalists in this region can immediately name at least three examples that they witnessed of intervention by an editor or other colleagues against a good journalistic discovery; many have even experienced themselves obstruction and sabotage “from the inside,” from their own newsrooms.

In the current generation of participants who are attending our program – and are currently investigating their topics - two participants, when choosing the topics that they will be working on for five months, immediately rejected at least one each: “There is no way I can publish this in my paper; the editor was appointed by the same party whose local leader is deeply involved in this business wise,” one of them said. “This field is covered by my older and more influential colleague; he is very ‘friendly’ with the management of that state company,” said the other.

It is easy, however, to deal with enemies who are identified in advance. We can take a stand on this problem right away – either we reject the topic, put it off for a better time, or we figure out a way to keep the enemy from finding out what we are doing until the moment when they can no longer jeopardize the investigation

It is easy, however, to deal with enemies who are identified in advance. We can take a stand on this problem right away – either we reject the topic, put it off for a better time, or we figure out a way to keep the enemy from finding out what we are doing until the moment when they can no longer jeopardize the investigation.

It is much worse when, right before publication, someone appears from your management and throws the whole thing into question; or he or she systematically discredits you from the beginning of the investigation, obstructs your work, reduces your salary, without your even knowing why.

Find your story’s enemy in your own ranks in advance. It is better to be paranoid and wrong than naïve and wrong.

The consequences of the former are a little more thinking and asking around; the consequences of the latter are a terribly unpleasant situation. But if something like this should happen to you, at least one, by no means unimportant thing will be clear right away: You are on to something big and you are on the right track to proving it.

Who might turn on you as enemies?

“Enemy” is a heavy word. It was separated as a category of sources because you must pay special attention to those who might hurt you in some way.

No one, including young colleagues, should be frightened unnecessarily, but “staged” arrests, all kinds of discrediting, beatings of journalists, even their murders, unfortunately are part of the history of journalism, practically everywhere where it truly does its job.

Ignoring this fact would be very stupid and naïve, just as it would be senseless to call off all investigations that might be dangerous to journalists. Between these two extremes are caution and a clear decision on how far a journalist is ready to go, what is the danger limit that they are not ready to cross

Ignoring this fact would be very stupid and naïve, just as it would be senseless to call off all investigations that might be dangerous to journalists. Between these two extremes are caution and a clear decision on how far a journalist is ready to go, what is the danger limit that they are not ready to cross. The synopsis will deal with this as well, but later on.

For now we need to summon all our strength, ask around and search for all possible ties between those whose wrongdoings we are investigating and people from the newsroom. Based on these findings, it is easier to make decisions regarding the investigation.

Throughout every investigation, we must be very careful. The editorial policy of our program may be simplified down to this: “No story is worth your head, but a few stories are actually that dangerous - the secret is recognizing the fatal one on time.”

Who could be your allies (do you need an inside informer and how do you find him/her)?

“Insider” is a terribly attractive word, reminding of “All the President’s Men” and their legendary source, “Deep Throat.” In the reality of our region, however, an insider is the riskiest of all methods of acquiring key information in investigative reporting.

If the gamble with an insider succeeds, the “winnings” (success of the story) are fantastic. But the likelihood that you will finish your story basing it on an insider’s verified allegations is very similar to a gambler’s chances in roulette. Why?

Out of seven investigations in our program that were based on an existent insider who agreed to cooperate, not one was completed that way. Insiders, namely, in a lot of cases pull out or are prevented from finishing the job together with you.

An investigation takes a long time. During that time, an insider’s attitude toward his/her own actions and their consequences changes.

Insulted people cool down, hurt people forgive, damaged people change their attitude to those who damaged them, brave people become more aware of the possible consequences. They pull out, withdraw their allegations, enter into business relations with the “bad guys.” In addition, things happen that have nothing to do with the investigation. People die, leave the country, fall ill.

One of our participants was supposed to do a story on abuse of office by prominent physicians and her main source was inside the hospital that they headed. Everything went quite fine until the person who was the source was caught in a crime unrelated to the topic, but which certainly discredited him as a source in every way.

Although similar things do happen, sudden criminalization of your insider is not really a typical example.

Let’s take another, much more ordinary one: one of our participants was investigating the case of a big, sloppy theft from his country’s budget for which fictitious companies were used. His source, a former police officer, knew all about it from work.

After he was removed from the post “from above,” he took with him all of the documentation which represented unquestionable proof.

During the investigation, however, the former police officer succeeded in coming to an arrangement with his enemies. They appointed him to a high post in the police and by that bought his silence. Without his documentation, the investigation stopped because the participant was unable to get proof through other channels.

Our region is especially inconvenient for working with insiders. Loss of job, which an insider is often threatened with here, as opposed to a country where there is an abundance of other jobs and employers, is certainly not the same.

In addition, citizens here do not enjoy the protection by the justice system and the police necessary for someone to feel safe and to come out with information that antagonizes strongmen.

Find an insider, if you can, and immediately start extracting from them all information that they can give you, especially insisting on evidence and documents, but certainly do not rely just on them

Find an insider, if you can, and immediately start extracting from them all information that they can give you, especially insisting on evidence and documents, but certainly do not rely just on them. That is the trick.

For, if they bail out, perhaps you can verify their allegations some other way.

If you do not think this way from the very start, however, it is very likely that after months of work you will be set back to the very beginning, i.e. to unverified information. You decide if you want to start from scratch.

Meanwhile, if you have an insider and work at the same time on getting proof from other sources, you are also verifying and confirming your story.

How can the audience use the story (who is the target audience, what will they do – if anything)?

The audience, of course, is also a stakeholder. There are stories that all adults find interesting, but not many are like that at all.

You should make an assessment of potentially interested users of your story above all because of the size of the audience. If the size is small, you can take steps to broaden it. For example, if you think the story is important, but most people are not interested in the topic, you can use an indirect link of a well-known personality with the issue, ask them for a comment and thus draw bigger attention to your work.

You can focus a story on money and use big numbers to attract readers or viewers. Maybe you will write the story as a narrative or include narrative elements in it.

If you do not come up with a way to attract a bigger number of readers to your story, it will not be attractive to the editor either, who may not know how to help you expand the target group or may not even feel like doing it, so you better tackle that yourself.

It is not insignificant what kind of audience it is either. If you are writing, for example, about piracy in the field of intellectual property, you will probably attract those who are most interested in this – tech-savvy, primarily young people who listen to music, work on computers and watch movies.

As this is not a population that heavily follows news programs and reads this type of press, you will have to come up with all sorts of tricks to attract them to your story. For example, you will ask their music idol what they would buy with all the money they lost to piracy. You will ask the music idol of their parents’ generation the same thing, because you want them to read the story, too.

Disappointed populations, politically and socially unorganized and poorly represented through the political system rarely react spontaneously to news and reporters’ discoveries

Disappointed populations, politically and socially unorganized and poorly represented through the political system rarely react spontaneously to news and reporters’ discoveries.

This, however, is by no means true of political and non-governmental organizations, which are ready to lead their followers into protests, campaigns and other forms of expressing their points of view.

If these organizations are directly linked through their interests to the subject of your story, you will seek their representatives for an interview during the investigation anyway. Use this opportunity to ask them what they will do and thus be ahead of your competition even after publication of the story by being prepared for what you know will follow.

If someone is organizing a campaign against piracy, you will discuss this in advance with certain people, make a couple of interviews with street vendors selling fake discs, or do something else for which your colleagues, tied to press conferences and events in the campaign, will have neither time nor place in their media outlets.

Of course, if what you discovered, proved and published provokes mass demonstrations, that is not bad at all. But this is not something just one journalist should prepare for; the whole newsroom should do it.

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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