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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,
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:
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.”
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.
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 work, not leaks from enforcement agencies.
In addition, investigative reporting should:
Think about unique angles and things that aren't being talked about elsewhere to set your story apart and get the inside scoop.
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.
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 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.
Knowing your audience will guide what material you need to research, and it will determine the shape of your 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:
Knowing the answers to these questions will ensure that your reporting is exhaustive so you can tell a complete story.
When you begin deeper research, you need to identify both primary and secondary sources.
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 content can be distributed in print, digital, and social platforms.
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.