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Carrying out a thorough analysis of all material
An important part in all investigative journalism is analysing the findings and reaching a conclusion.
To do this efficiently and successfully the investigative journalists must have a synopsis, or plan, for their investigation.
This plan helps make sense of whatever is uncovered.
Image courtesy of Machine Project and released under Creative Commons
In the first three parts of this four-part series expanding on Lars Moller's The Investigative Synopsis, we looked at 1) validating our investigation, 2) planning the investigation, 3) identifying the stakeholders, and now we look at analysing our findings.
Those who have worked through the process probably already acknowledged its complexity and recognized its benefits.
However, in this phase of work we need to revisit some of the steps already taken and look at the elements in more detail. This is not repeating the task but is about digging deeper.
For example, a lot of the things you write in answer to the question: “What do you know and what do you presume” will be repeated in another segment of the synopsis (under the task: “Define information as verified and unverified”) – however this is not the same.
Unverified information is information that you have received, that you are convinced is true, but for which you do not have double verification from independent sources, while a presumption is still just that – a presumption, and it is not based on your findings, but rather on logical thinking based on known information.
In any case, even if it is repetition – so what? Is it not better to think through your intentions a couple of times than to establish later on that you do not have a way to verify the key piece of information, let alone prove it? Therefore – you now need patience to continue with the synopsis and ensure it is thorough.
To repeat, a synopsis can save you a great deal of unnecessary work, or in a worst case scenario – major problems with editors and courts.
Organising and analyzing information
The meaning of your entire work on the synopsis seems to fall under the meaning of the name of this segment. What you write about your topic here will usually change in the course of the investigation.
Define information by type and importance
It is not a bad idea to know what is the most important thing that you have to find out and to constantly bear in mind what is most important among the things you have already discovered.
It is usually unnecessary to explain the need for this kind of classification of information to journalists who have already worked on major and complex investigations. As for the others, however, we often point out the possibility that you will collect such a pile of information in the course of your work that you will have a hard time finding your way around it.
Although most investigations start with specific information about a wrongdoing that needs to be proven, journalists often start investigating a theme for which they have no specific information, but they feel something is “fishy” in a certain area.
For example, one of our participants decided to investigate the operation of security agencies for the protection of people and property because legislation in this area, as well as lack of any kind of serious control, evidently gives owners and employees a lot of room for “dirty dealings”.
In cases such as this one, journalists talk to many sources, read a lot of written sources and in this mass of information look for information that will help them prove something worth the effort.
Of course, at a certain point journalists are up to their necks in half-truths, indications, rumors, unverified information and sources of various kinds.
Unless you create a system for keeping several of the most promising bits of information on top of the list, removing them if they turn out to be useless and adding new ones in their place, you can become completely lost, demoralized and give up. If you do the opposite, you will keep placing a clear and worthy goal before you that pulls you forward.
Our participant at one point came to a complete standstill with her investigation, because the sources were taking her in two different directions in which she had gone too far.
When she came back to this segment of the synopsis, she realized that proving information in both directions actually depended on just one, unknown bit of information.
She focused on that information and after a really exhausting tug-of-war with the police, managed to get it. Her story finally resulted in an important discovery and will soon be published.
Define information as verified and unverified
We cannot hold everything in our head. Especially the small bits of information, whose accuracy gives the story the credibility of serious journalism.
You cannot afford to work on building a story for months only to remember that you did not verify on time a piece of information which, for example, starts off a logical sequence upon which a whole part of the story rests.
What will happen if it turns out that that information is incorrect or that there just are no other sources to verify it?
Keep records of verified and unverified information, constantly updating it. For that matter, by grouping the verified information, we can often draw very important and surprising conclusions.
Although we hunted for evidence about many people being killed in the same spot on a railway route in Serbia, a participant in our program and we, the trainers/editors, could not verify some of the information at all, while on the other hand, a whole new story was piling up. Halfway through, we gave up verifying the unverifiable because the verified facts were telling a story about money invested in building railway crossings.
Although we extracted data from contracts for completely different reasons, it became clear that the costs of these crossings at one point drastically went up, without a visible reason. It turned out that the labor and the materials were being overpaid in a major way and that someone, obviously, had been systematically taking money in agreement with contractors for three full years.
That was not a bad story either. Actually, from that same list of verified information two other good stories came out and none of them was the one that we had started with.
Discuss what you have with your editor, mentor or experienced colleague
And do not be vain about it either, we might add. Our work requires individuality, ambition, determination. Journalists do not like to be patronized and they often think they know best.
One of the reasons is that during their career they usually did not have someone to discuss their dilemmas with, because many editors are loaded with work, inexpert or not ambitious.
If you have an editor in whose judgement you trust and they are in the mood to help you, use their experience and objective view on the story.
Another reason for sharing your dilemmas with your editor is more prosaic. Although it would be nice for editors to be independent and brave people who place ethics above personal interest, that is not always so.
If your editors are informed of your every step and each time give you a green light to continue, they will have taken their share of responsibility for the consequences of publishing your discoveries.
If someone sues you, you will answer in court together anyway. But, when powerful or dangerous people start personally phoning the newsroom, editors are sometimes tempted to say something like: “Oh, it’s that kid who was digging around a bit on his own, had I known…” If during the investigation process you frequently talk to your editors, these kinds of attacks of human weakness will be forestalled.
Finally, investigations take a long time and editors, chronically condemned to a small number of journalists and under pressure to produce newer and newer information, lose their patience and start putting pressure on you to publish what you have proven so far and then continue with the investigation, which may close off all your sources.
Bear in mind that editors are also – journalists. They too have a craving for stories and if you involve them in your investigation, if you share your enthusiasm and effort, it is much more likely that they will believe in the investigation until the very end and let you work on it.
Furthermore, many will help you in every way they can and protect you from management, which as a rule has little understanding for what they think is “low productivity.”
All the articles in this series of five
Branko 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.