Investigative journalism- Tricks of the trade
by Aya Lowe
“Think about it this way, if you don’t know how your money is being spent, if you don’t know how decisions are being made and if you don’t know who is influencing what. Then, how do you know what you really support or oppose, how do you know how to engage with your community. It is always going to be a fight to find out what your government don’t want you to know about.” – Martha Mendoza
What is investigative journalism? It’s a long-form type of journalism that is in-depth, comprises of original research and often involves the unearthing of secrets. It’s hardly ever easy and it can be hard to find a company or institution to support a full investigative piece, but its value and impact is long lasting.
A recent investigative conference organized by the Global Investigation Journalism Network in Kathmandu hosted several Pulitzer Prize winning journalists and projects.
These included Martha Mendoza and Esther Htusan who were part of the AP team who uncovered the slave trade behind the fishing industry in Asia, Walter V Robinson who headed the investigative team at Boston Globe which uncovered countless of sexual abuses by catholic priests which was later turned into the Oscar winning movie ‘Spotlight’ and the Asian team who scrapped the data of the Panama papers to uncover the various financial scandals of celebrities, politicians and well known businessmen across Asia.
During the conference I was able to listen in on the challenges, commitment and time that define these investigations. From these various talks and break out sessions, I’ve compiled a list of tips and tricks I found the most practical and useful for journalists like me who are looking to hone their investigative skills.
Investigation requires collaboration
Journalism is very competitive. Reporters are often looking to scoop a story or to bag an exclusive. While we’re friendly with each other at events and gatherings, we’ll always make sure not to reveal all our cards when writing a story.
But sometimes the content supersedes competition between different outlets.
When the Panama Papers were first released, uncovering the dirt in the numbers involved almost 200 journalists in 65 countries. Different online collaborative tools such as Oxwall, Solr and Linurious were set up.
One team couldn’t have done it alone. Remember when launching an investigation, look to see where you can collaborate to get the most out of the story.
A number of networks already exist where journalists share story ideas and ask questions from other journalists who have already worked on a similar story in their country. Here are a couple:
Global Investigative Journalism Network
They have an area which lists resources of different networks you can tap into and a lot of informative and educational material.
A women’s network of journalists where you can write and connect on different issues regarding women
Help a Reporter Out (HARO)
A free service that allows professional reporters to submit a query explaining their story. The query is reviewed by HARO editors and forwarded on to registered sources who can then choose to respond and comment. They can also remain anonymous if they want. According to the company, 35,000 journalists and 475,000 sources are registered with the service.
Databases that provide journalists with a list of published academic work and its authors by subject search. It also has an email alert function, which can notify journalists of new academic publications in their subject area.
Make use of online tools
There are many free online tools that can be very useful in an investigation piece, whether its trying to track down someone’s email, see their activity on social media to ascertain connections to companies or groups or finding out the hidden data behind a photograph.
Here’s a list of a few online tools you can use in your investigation
Jeffrey’s exif viewer
Shows the metadata behind a photo such as the original size, where it was taken, the date etc. Photos can easily be modified so it can help to track if a photo is fake or not. It can also help in finding sources in the photograph.
If you can’t find out the IP address of an Internet user, you can get an idea what part of the country or world they’re in by using our IP Lookup tool.
A great online tool and app for visualizing data in interesting formats. Helps readers better understand a complex story.
If you have someone’s email address you can input it into spokeo to find their movements on social media. It’s useful for trying to establish connections with companies, groups etc.
Shows what people are doing on social media in a certain location
Finds other hidden photos from an already loaded photo
Third party twitter tools
Twitter allows third-party sites to use its data and create their own searches.
Followerwonk, for example, lets you search Twitter bios and compare different users. It’s useful for trying to establish connections and pinpoint sources.
While it may sound tedious, some of the best investigative journalism is done in sifting through public records and endless data.
It helps to take a crash course in tools such as Open Refine (http://openrefine.org/) and Excel sheets.
Three things to keep in mind when trying to sift through data: structure your data, keep the same format across your spreadsheet, and think in a data language, for example instead of using space use under score, use all lower case or use numbers to differentiate.
It’s important to use apps that visualize data so you can easily spot trends and patterns. There are a lot of tools out there to help you like those listed above.
Get effective at searching the web
When conducting an online search on search engines such as Google, it is important to remember that a search is based on the words found on a web page so to optimize a search you need to work out which words are on your target pages. Here are some tips:
Choose your search terms carefully. Each extra word you add to the search focuses the results by eliminating results that don’t include your chosen keywords.
Use advanced search grammar. If you don’t have definite keywords, you can still build in other possible keywords without damaging the results. You can do this by building optional keywords into your search and separating them with the word OR (in capital letters).? You can use this technique to search for different spellings of the name of an individual, company or organization.
You can also focus your search on a particular site by using the search word “site:” followed by the domain name. This can, for example, restrict your search to results found on Twitter.
(Aya Lowe is the Philippine correspondent of Singapore-based Channel News Asia. She is a graduate of the Ateneo de Manila University’s M.A. Journalism program and the Diploma in Multimedia Journalism).