More than 1,100 investigative journalists and their supporters are gathered in Johannesburg this week to discuss everything from how to gather data to safety of journalists, how to fund investigative journalism to teaching methodology in data and investigative journalism.
The 10th Annual Global Investigative Journalism Conference (GIJC) is being billed by the creators as “a giant training conference.” And, indeed it is. Most of the panels and workshops are geared to young investigative journalists with a few seminars thrown in for mid-career journalists, funders, non-profits and academics. The attendees at GIJC come from 130 countries.
The conference opened with the plenary “Investigating the New Autocrats,” which featured investigative journalists David Cay Johnston (U.S.), Ritu Sarin (India), Patricia Evangelista (Philippines), Ewald Scharfenberg (Venezuela), Roman Anin (Russia) and Mzilikazi wa Afrika (South Africa).
While many things happened during the day, one of the more interesting discussions involved how editors can handle investigative stories.
A panel of journalists – Marina Walker Guevara, deputy director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists; Mark Schoofs of Buzzfeed News; and Musikilu Mojeed, formerly an editor with Next newspaper in Nigeria – gave pointers on editing the investigative story.
Here are their tips:
From Schoofs, who noted “investigative journalism usually takes a lot of time and resources”:
When selecting a story, determine these things:
Is there harm? (Bodies killed or hurt, dollars stolen, trust betrayed?)
What is the scale of the harm? (Can you quantify it? How many? How frequently? How long?)
Who is responsible (Major institution, powerful person? Systemic?)
Is it original? (Is it surprising?)
Can you get it?
Schoofs said, “When you choose to do one story, you choose not to do another,” so it is imperative that the story you choose to investigate is significant and viable.
When choosing a story, he said, bring in other people to get their opinion, explain why some stories seem better than others so that reporters learn and ask how you can make the story bigger and more powerful.
But, he said, be ready to kill a story. “If the reporting is tough, hang in there. If the story seems so-so, kill it.”
“Investigative reporting is hard, so let your reporters know you’re there for them,” said Schoofs, adding: Check in as frequently as your reporter needs (some multiple times a day, some once a week or less), ask what documents or data might be gettable and strategize on how to get them, constantly check for confirmation bias – especially on your own. Ask what would disprove the whole thesis of the story, and celebrate tiny victories!
Musikilu Mojeed, speaking candidly of an undercover investigative piece on human trafficking that ran in the online publication Premium Times, discussed the challenges of doing the story (read it here: https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/153844-investigation-inside-nigerias-ruthless-human-trafficking-mafia.html) and how the media house jumped in without being fully prepared. https://globalvoices.org/2014/02/13/doubts-arise-over-nigerian-journalists-undercover-human-trafficking-expose/
Mojeed suggested looking out for these loopholes:
1.Insufficient knowledge of the subject matter
2. Excessive trusting of reporters
3. Taking things for granted when editing work by talented reporters
4. Not demanding evidence for key claims, allegations
5. Failing to see where things can go wrong and how to overcome such challenges
6. Not taking security precautions – online/digital/physical security
7. Clearing claims by anonymous sources without proper factchecking and demand of evidence from reporters
8. Not planning for post-publication backlash/events/danger
Finally, Guevara, discussed editing the “leak” story with collaboration from colleagues across borders.
Guevara said investigative stories must establish public interest and that reporters should apply pressure on the data and work with experts. Importantly, reporters must also map what they know versus what they are inferring.
Most important, said the editors, is to write early and often! It helps assess progress – or lack of progress, and it helps you spot inconsistencies.