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5 Aug 2020

Getting to the Bottom of a Story: A How-to Guide for Using News Archives to Support Investigative Journalism

Sometimes, they are stories that win Pulitzer Prizes. Sometimes, they are stories that become blockbuster movies. And occasionally, the fruits of investigative journalism are both. Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate reporting earned the Washington Post the 1973 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service and inspired “All the President’s Men.” Likewise, investigative reporting by the Boston Globe broke the silence on sex abuse in the Catholic Church, which led to the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service and inspired the 2016 Best Picture Oscar winner, “Spotlight.”  But anyone who has watched those movies can see that the path to award-winning investigative journalism is strewn with dead ends and detours. Not to mention, a sceptical public, 75% of whom admit to fact-checking news stories to combat the fake news phenomenon.   

How do you overcome the research roadblocks to get the scoop?

Let’s start with some expert advice from a seasoned, prize-winning reporter, The New York Times' David Barstow. During a Poynter "Master Class," Barstow shared investigative journalism tips learned from decades in the business. Two tips stand out:

  1. Big stories need to be tightly framed. You may have a big question to answer, but if you start following multiple trails without a clear direction, you’re bound to get lost in the details. Woodward and Bernstein were hyper-focused on the Watergate break-in. By pursuing answers to that one question, “Who was behind the break-in,” the duo ended up delivering a series of articles that would eventually bring down a President. Barstow says, “By scrunching the field of focus down, it allows you, first, to target your reporting much more precisely. But it also, then, allows you to bring in all the complexity within that tight little frame.”
  2. Buy-in from your editor delivers value. As every journalist knows, the pressure to go to press (or the web) quickly is sometimes all-consuming—but investigative journalism demands a more measured, slower process. Having your editor on board means you’ll have an advocate with higher-ups in the organization. “You want some other people in the foxhole with you,” says Barstow.

Now, let’s get down to the brass tacks of investigative journalism.  

  1. Find the story you want to pursue. The International Center for Journalists (ICJ) suggests the definition of investigative journalism should not be confined to “stories that expose corruption and criminal activity.” Instead, ICJ defines investigative journalism as stories that are based on original investigative work, not leaks from enforcement agencies. In addition, investigative reporting should:
    • Explain complex social problems; or
    • Right a wrong; or
    • Reveal corruption, wrong-doing or abuse of power

How do you go about finding potential stories? Research. Read newspapers. Look for those small stories that make you stop and think. Monitor social media. Sometimes a viral post is just the tip of the iceberg.

  1. Educate yourself on the topic. Preliminary research should focus on filling in gaps in your knowledge regarding the topic. Developing a strong background on the topic helps you identify the direction your investigation should take.
  2. Consider the different audiences you want to reach. Audiences can be quite diverse, ranging from engaged citizens, pundits and politicians to niche groups that have a particular interest in the subject of your investigative journalism. As a result, they have different needs and expectations for the content they consume. Citizens, for example, may want context surrounding the cost to taxpayers or risk to their community. Politicians, on the other hand, may want historical context to gain a broad perspective relative to the changing political, economic, or socio-cultural issues.
  3. Outline your vision for the final story. Based on what you’ve learned about the topic, plus the audience needs and expectations, decide whether your story should be framed from a local perspective or whether it has broader implications. Ask yourself some specific questions to help develop the outline:
    • What is happening? (Or has happened?)
    • Why should readers care?
    • Who is involved?
    • What are the consequences?
    • How can the story provide value, i.e., will it facilitate debate, highlight a wrong, bring about positive change in society?
  4. Choose the right research platform. Movies about investigative journalism often feature scenes where reporters are digging through a newspaper “morgue” for historical background or time-consuming visits to numerous government agencies to access records. While no story can be written without some of this type of legwork, investigative journalists in the digital age have a distinct research advantage—cloud-based research tools. Starting research on the open web may seem tempting, but finding reliable information quickly poses a challenge because so much of the content surfaced can be biased, incomplete, out-of-date, marketing-driven or even fake. The provenance of data is often cloudy, requiring additional research simply to validate your findings. Nexis® for Media Professionals brings together a world-leading source universe, including a deep news archive going back 40+ years—all in one place—with powerful search technology that helps you filter out the noise to find the most relevant information, quickly.
  5. Dive into the research. When you begin deeper research, you need to identify both primary and secondary sources.
    • Primary sources can provide first-hand evidence or experience. Finding these individual’s can be a challenge, but with the help of LexisNexis® SmartLinx® reporting technology, you can generate comprehensive reports that can identify hidden connections between people, locations and businesses, helping you locate additional primary sources to corroborate the story.
    • Secondary sources include second-hand accounts from individuals, as well as a wide range of print and web content spanning premium print, broadcast and web news, trade and industry journals, company and executive information, legal and regulatory data, and billions of public records* from 10,000+ sources. Company hierarchies, for example, can show you the relationship between organizations, even if the names are different, and help you identify shell companies being used to cloud beneficial owners—a factor that proved very significant in the Panama Papers investigative reporting in 2016.
  6. Write, edit and publish. When the research is done, your sources are validated, and your “ducks” are in a row, return to that original vision outline and verify that it is still relevant—then prepare to go to press. This includes developing content to feature on various platforms, since today’s audiences have different preferences for where, when and how they engage with media.

Want to see how Nexis for Media Professionals supports investigative journalism? Download the Nexis overview today or arrange a trial or personalized demo.