Rules for generating a story

Some basic rules of pro-active story generating in investigative journalism

Make a list of areas of concern you would like to investigate. What do you see when you look at the list? Could we say that investigative journalism is value-driven?

Exercise:     Why are we investigative journalists?
Exercise:     Find a story from nothing

1. Get the picture

Is the concern based on a public assumption, or a reality? What IS the problem? Is it really a big problem? Is it growing/decreasing? Is it unaddressed despite promises? Is it diminishing but not fast enough? Ask experts but be careful: experts have interests too! Compare the information from your expert with other information on the subject to get an idea. Use the internet for this. Find databases and statistics for a rough first impression.

Exercise:     Find the expert(s)
List sources that can give you relevant numbers
Do rough internet check (find statistics, find .orgs, use whole sentences, use Google advanced to search sites)

2. Find the right focus

You have found that your first assumption was either correct or incorrect; a big problem indeed or a rather small problem. You may even have found the opposite of what you expected to find. (There may be many more premature babies being kept alive than before; crime might actually be getting less.) Find new focus, if possible a headline; draw up the most important questions to ask.

Exercise:     What is my headline?
What questions to ask now?

3. Map your issue

Try to find indicators of hidden information through data mapping. A lazy government, stealing hospital staff, irresponsible corporates, Mafiosi and corrupt politicians, all have reasons to hide information. The reasons for hiding information usually have to do with cheating: there is theft going on, or lazy, ignorant, uncaring drawing of salaries, or illicit trade (arms, drugs). Which means that there is evidence to find of money or goods disappearing (or appearing where it doesn’t belong) , services not rendered, budgets not spent. Map data around your issue to find this hidden information: official government health spending against actual medicines in clinics, government contracts and tenders against services delivered (and names of relatives of politicians in the winning tenders!), general trading figures against rather large imports of a possibly disguised item (textiles, cosmetics); salaries against assets of suddenly massively rich people; tax paid by companies against resources exported; maintenance court monthly pay outs against income from garnishee orders Use the Promotion of Access to Information Act in South Africa or a similar law if you are lucky enough to live in a country that has one.

Exercise:  What data do I need to search?
What questions to ask of these data?

4. Find sources before they find you

Information that you get from sources cultivated by you are generally more trustworthy than information from sources that come to you by their own initiative. Admittedly, there are great stories that come from whistleblowers motivated by genuine outrage about injustice, but more often such active informants are motivated by grievances (ex –wives, losing contract bidders) or, worse, they could be ‘spinners’ employed by secret services or whoever else wants to plant a story to obtain a certain goal. A person motivated by grievance may have a point and a story worth listening to, but you still have to assess whether a) this story is a priority; b) whether this person is seeing the whole picture (maybe he is giving you a tip-off on a crook but he may not see that there is a bigger crook behind it all). It is altogether better to approach sources in your priority fields (from the Ministry of Finance to the Stock Exchange to the Doctors Association, etcetera) and get them to share their information with you. Whatever you do, don’t allow your sources to take you by the hand and guide your story.

5. Loose the attitude

Journalists suffer from ‘bad press’. We are nosy, out to get sensation, to destroy people’s reputations, working for the opposition, keeping honest hardworking people from their work, etcetera. The more we display a ‘gung ho’attitude that says ‘I can phone you at any time of day and night and you just have to talk with me’(a famous US journalist was reputed to threaten sources that he would come and break their legs if they didn’t give him what he wanted), the more we create hostility between ourselves and the rest of society. It is always good to realize that most people (87 % according to Levitts’ bagel test*) like to believe that they are good, honest and working in the public interest- so why not relate to sources on this basis? Remarks like: ‘I would really like to understand how this works’, ‘please help explain the problem for the benefit of the community’, ‘please work with me to expose this because the pollution is killing children’ often bear good results. (It is not just a matter of strategy. Why should we have an ‘attitude’ to begin with? We were not democratically elected as monitors of other people –we just happened to land a job as journalists. In almost all cases, individuals will feel inclined to help a journalist if they can be convinced that the public interest is at stake.)

If you are busy exposing totally hostile sources, (an uncaring company, a mafia bank, a racist militia) you will likely use covert techniques (taping on your cellphone, etc). Of course in those circumstances you would take even more care to come across as friendly and like-minded.

Exercise: Mingle at a busy hotel; get people to talk to you about what they do. Make cultivation plan and list of issues where they may come in handy.

Question:     Do fellow journalists make good sources?
How accountable are we ourselves?

6.  Go to ground

Few will argue with the assumption that, if investigative journalism is about uncovering wrongdoing and injustice, investigative journalists need to be where the wrongdoing and the injustice takes place. Often, in Africa, this is mostly in rural and other poor areas. It is there where hospitals and schools are supposed to be developed and functioning, but often aren’t; it is there where one finds the polluted dumps, the cruel landowners, etcetera. Again, use data mapping to compare what you find on the ground against policy papers, promises, budgets and what your sources tell you. Compare your findings with what has happened in similar places with similar problems, or even with different times in history. If you don’t do this, and become or remain dependant on highly placed sources in urban offices and bars,

(Time for another reality check: is your issue really what causes the problem here? Are teenage girls really getting pregnant to access a social grant or has the number of teenage pregnancies always been the same, even before the grant? Remember: it is always better to turn back half way than to persist with a story-line that has become somewhat meagre. Chances are that you will have been getting much better stuff along the way and you can again simply change focus.)

7. Find the culprit

Use the expertise that you have built up by now to find the person who is supposed to do something about this problem. Who made the promises, assigned the budgets, who was supposed to lead implementation? Who is the Corporate Responsibility director in this company? Who has made family healthcare disappear in the area? Use forensic interviewing skills and a ‘sorry, I can’t help it, I have to ask’ attitude to ask the tough questions. (See Columbo movies).

Exercise:     Draw up questions for interview with identified culprit

8. Find help

You have likely been given either a denial (‘we did not kill that person, we are honest arms traders, besides, you can’t prove it and we’ll take you to court’); a ‘no comment’ or an admission in terms of ‘we have been trying’ and ‘it is very difficult but next year August we will build that hospital’. Theoretically, and according to modern Freedom of Information laws such as in SA, your story is finished and ready to be published, because you presented your findings to the person who is probably going to be mentioned negatively. The problem is that, the more powerful the person that you are holding accountable, the more power that person has to drown you and your editor in pre-publication litigation. Even if you have enough substantiation, you may not be able to publish because very rich people will have more funds than your editor and he/she will have a real fear of being bankrupted in lengthy court battles. It is for this reason that we see more exposés on corrupt MP’s, lazy officials and street criminals, than on injustices associated with multinational companies. Press freedom organizations, access to information laws and institutions, and media defense funds can help in cases where you find your back against the wall.

9. Network

Keeping your ‘scoop’ for yourself and mistrusting colleagues (who can ‘steal your story’) is often counterproductive. There are more than enough stories in this world to go around. A colleague who steals will find him/herself without helpful colleagues the next time around, so the loss one can expect from trusting too much is likely only incidental. It is a risk worth taking in the light of all the good results that have come from cooperation. Additionally, in situations where ‘spindoctors’ (be they pharmaceutical companies, police chiefs or political party agents) attempt to manipulate journalists, networking and sharing experiences will help expose and put an end to such practices.

* FAIR (the Forum for African Investigative Reporters) has embarked on a mission to bring all different initiatives –in media advocacy, media freedom, media defense and access to information- useful to investigative journalists together so that an African journalist in publishing trouble, or in need of more time to complete an investigation, can apply to a one-stop-shop for help. FAIR also has a network that enables journalists to have their material published outside their own country.

** The bagel test is explained in ‘Freakonomics’ by Stephen Levitt, which is a very good read for an investigative journalist. The bagel test, conducted by a highly-business-experienced bagel seller, formerly a corporate executive, shows that out of all office employees serviced with a basket of bagels, whilst no monitoring or disciplinary measure were enforced against non-payers, 87 % of bagel eaters would deposit the correct amount of money in the bagel tin. (Very interestingly, the rate drops as bagel-eaters find themselves higher on the corporate ladder. Whether executives steal bagels out of a sense of entitlement or whether they became executives because they were cheaters to begin with, is a question Levitt poses, but leaves unanswered.)

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