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How to do Research for Investigative Journalism

January 03, 2024 (6 min read)
Thorough research is key to getting to the bottom of 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. Take Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate reporting for The Washington Post, for example. It earned the paper 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 skeptical public--75% of whom admit to independently fact-checking news stories to combat the fake news phenomenon. 

To ensure skeptics your information is accurate, you need access to quality information, and that's where Nexis can help. In this article, we'll go over tips and trick for overcoming research roadblocks,  

How do you overcome research roadblocks in investigative journalism?

Prize-winning reporter, The New York Times' David Barstow shared these investigative journalism tips during a recent Poynter "Master Class." From his over two decades in the business, he distilled things down to these two tips:

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.

For example, 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.”

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. If your editor is in your corner, you'll have their support should you be faced with claims of libel or misinformation. 

MORE: How to fix your research style

How to write an investigative journalism story

Determine your story angle

You may think that "investigative journalism" is one specific theme. We've all seen the documentaries that reveal corruption or an abuse of power in an organization or government. But that might be too narrow a view. 

The International Center for Journalists (ICJ) suggests investigative stories should not be confined to ones "that expose corruption and criminal activity.” Instead, ICJ defines investigative journalism as stories that are based on original investigative research 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

Think about unique angles and things that aren't being talked about elsewhere to set your story apart and get the inside scoop.  

How do you find potential stories?

Chose something that piques your interest. Read newspapers and look for those small stories that make you stop and think. Or, monitor social media--sometimes a viral post is just the tip of the iceberg.

Your preliminary research should focus on filling in gaps in your knowledge regarding the topic, helping you determine a direction you should take. 

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, audiences have different needs and expectations for the content they consume. Average citizens, for example, may want context surrounding the cost to taxpayers of a proposed water pipeline initiative or more about risk to their community that the pipeline may pose. Politicians, on the other hand, may want historical context to gain a broad perspective relative to the changing political, economic, or socio-cultural issues in an effort to better respond to constituents or shape policy.

Knowing your audience will guide what material you need to research to speak more clearly to your audience, and it will determine the shape of your story.

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?

These answers will give you the basic shape of an outline so you can shape your argument and tell a complete story. 

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.

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. It's very likely that what you found in research may alter the shape of your outline as you've found new information. From there, write the story and prepare to distribute it via the right platform, whether that's online, print, or video. 

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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.

Want to see how Nexis for Media Professionals supports investigative journalism? Start an instant free trial today.