TYPES OF REPORTING III : INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING
When you mention Investigative Reporting, the first thing that comes to the mind of your listener is: Is there any reporting that does not involve investigation? What then sets a particular method apart from others as Investigative Reporting. In this third post in our series on types or methods of reporting, we shall examine the characteristics of investigative reports, who can make an excellent investigative reporter, the role of the media investigative reporting plays and the availability/popularity of this method of reporting in Nigeria.
Three Main Characteristics of Investigative Reports
The three main characteristics of investigative reports that put them in a class by themselves above the routine investigation and verification process required for most stories are:
• They concern matters, often of a negative or illegal nature, that some people or organisations want to keep hidden. Those concerned are usually highly-placed people and organisations who have the resources to stifle attempts to learn anything concrete about the matters in question. This is why investigative stories are called exposés.
Below are examples of issues that call for such stories:
***Admission rackets in schools
***Job rackets, especially in the public service
***Embezzlement of funds and other forms of fraud in the public and private sector
***Sales of expired products
***Production and sales of contaminated food/drinks and other substandard products
***Scams using charitable organisations as fronts
***Human and sex trafficking
• Investigative reports are primarily the result of the journalist’s original efforts and enterprise. They are not based on second-hand information or the work done by others. For example, a reporter gets a tip that a state’s ministry of agriculture is selling at exorbitant prices in cities fertiliser that the government has directed should be distributed at highly subsidised prices to rural farmers. He then pursues the tip, organises a sting operation with the support of his organisation (with or without the collaboration of the police) and blows the illegal diversion wide open.
• Investigative reports concern matters of public interest. The investigative reporter does not go about invading people’s privacy unless he gets wind that they are doing something that could compromise public health and safety or that could be of public concern in some other ways. If, for example, a celebrity or public official frequents a night club, it does not become the subject of an investigative report unless something criminal goes on at the club, like sex with minors in the back rooms or dealing in controlled substances.
Other Characteristics of Investigative Reports
• As seen above, investigative reports are written about important matters of public concern. The difference between them and the issues addressed by straight news and interpretative reports is that they focus on important matters pertaining to wrongdoing by people in positions of responsibility.
• In language and organisation, intvestigative reports resemble interpretative reports rather than straight news reports. In other words, they call for more creative writing skills than mere use of the simplest language possible, summary lead and the inverted pyramid.
• Investigative reports also tend to be long because a lot of investigations are complex and take many weeks or longer to complete. Some of the stories are presented in a series to cover the various angles and stages of the investigation. Some are long enough to become the subjects of books and movies, like the Watergate story- All the President’s Men– by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
• An investigative report would have a viewpoint based on the outcome of the investigation. What would be wrong would be to make up one’s mind, then skew the investigation and doctor the evidence to fit one’s preconceived judgment. Sidestepping lines of inquiry that might invalidate one’s initial hypothesis or omitting evidence thereto from the story is unethical. So is overstretching available facts and pushing unwarranted conclusions therefrom.
• Following from the first and last points in this section (Other Characteristics …), we can say that investigative reports offer information and persuasion that the rot in the system needs to be excised and those responsible for it brought to book.
What would Make a Journalist an Excellent Investigative Reporter?
The foregoing has shown that investigative reporting is more demanding than everyday reporting. What qualities, therefore, does a journalist need to excel at it beyond the regular nose for news, mastery in the use of language and openness?
• Desire for reform: Without a longing to see positive change in society, a journalist will lack the drive to pursue investigations. When someone feels terrible about institutional failure, corruption, injustice and the like, and wants to contribute his quota to righting the wrongs in various sectors of society, he will be committed to taking on the extra work required for pursuing leads that could blossom into major exposés.
Some people dabbled into journalism because they couldn’t land their dream jobs. They merely see reporting as a meal ticket, not a vocation or calling through which they can change society for good. Such people are only concerned about wrongdoing when it personally affects them or those close to them. They lack the passion to fight for the disadvantaged, disenfranchised and disillusioned in society. But the one who sees journalism as his calling sees himself as a social reformer and considers it a privilege to be the voice of the voiceless and the watchdog of society, keeping the wealthy and powerful accountable to the rest of society.
• Doggedness: Investigative stories are not low-hanging fruit. They require a lot of work and perseverance. The reporter may have to knock on some important doors repeatedly, he may need to spend hours and days poring over books and documents, he may conduct surveillance for days and weeks without result until the story breaks.
Some journalists are content to cover events assigned to them and pay perfunctory visits to their beats. Such reporters are definitely not cut out for investigative reporting. It requires people who are willing to go the extra mile and people who don’t easily give in to discouragement.
• Courage: Investigative reporting can be very dangerous because of the possibility of pre-emptive strikes or vengeance from highly-placed people whose status and livelihoods may be negatively affected by what it unearths. Threats to the reporters’ and his family’s life, livelihood and property are common. In a very famous case in Nigeria, Dele Giwa, the first Editor-in-Chief of Newswatch magazine was killed by a letter bomb on October 19, 1986. This is widely believed to be related to his knack for doing investigative pieces exposing corruption in government circles. Investigative reporting is, therefore, not for the lily-livered.
• Integrity: A lot of sordid stuff can be uncovered in the course of investigative reporting. A greedy person may see this as an opportunity to enrich himself through blackmail or yield to bribery offers from those who would wish to see the reports and evidence buried. A principled mind that is not easily swayed by such temptations is, therefore, called for.
Similarly, a lot of confidential sources are courted in investigative reporting. The reporter needs to be someone who handles information as he promised his sources, keeping certain things off the record, maintaining the anonymity of sources who will be endangered if revealed, no matter the pressure. Two reporters for The Guardian newspaper, Tunde Thompson and Nduka Irabor, were jailed under Decree 4 of 1884 for purportedly reporting inaccurately and bringing government officials to disrepute. In spite of pressure from security officials, they refused to reveal their sources when this was offered as grounds for regaining their freedom.
• Fairness: It is easy to lay blame but an investigative reporter must not rush to judgment or apportion blame subjectively. In the example about sale of fertiliser, the reporter may discover that the particular fertiliser he was tipped about is no longer in stock or that what is being sold in the city is not government-supplied fertiliser. It would amount to an actionable offence to go ahead and report as tipped, especially if there is malicious intent or the reporter is doing a hatchet job. This is becoming standard practice in mainstream media (MSM) abroad which publish lies from so-called anonymous sources or push narratives ostensibly on the basis of investigations which are shams at best and quietly issue corrections which receive nowhere near the publicity the original stories received.
• Discipline and foresight: A good investigative reporter does not allow himself to be carried away by every clue and open multiple fronts of investigations simultaneously. He works on the most credible leads and actually submits stories at optimal cost. Living in hotels indefinitely at an organisation’s expense and racking up bills without results is an invitation to dismissal from one’s job. So having the foresight to know when an investigation is going nowhere and calling it quits is also important.
• Research skills and critical thinking: Investigative reporting requires more than the usual amount of legwork and desk work. It needs someone who knows how to utilise resources to track down sources, gain their co-operation and confidence, elicit any relevant information at their disposal and file it properly for when it will be needed.
Assessing the validity or otherwise of the huge volume of material gathered during investigations, weighing how substantive claims and assertions by sources are (factoring in their possible motivations), discovering the connections between seemingly unrelated bits of evidence and players in the unfolding story are some of the ways in which critical thinking is called for in investigative reporting. It needs someone with an analytical mind. Anyone who only sees the obvious or addresses matters superficially will not do well as an investigative reporter.
• Exceptional writing skills: Putting together the investigative report requires superb writing skills so that the reader is not overwhelmed with material, the story does not become unwieldy and boring and the story is evocative enough to move those that matter to action.
Role of the Media Investigative Reporting Fulfils
It is through investigative reporting that the media can serve as watchdogs of society, keeping guard and censuring those who abuse their positions, thereby compromising public safety and welfare. Investigating reporting is like a beam of light that exposes the illicit dealings of those who would deceive the public and selfishly appropriate our collective patrimony or enrich themselves in other ways at public expense. It is like a sanitiser that is sprayed on the odoriferous aspects of public life to curb their harmful impact and deter future perpetrators of such pernicious conduct.
Availability/Popularity of Investigative Reporting in Nigeria
Investigative reporting was more prevalent in previous decades when we had a more fiery brand of journalism in Nigeria. News magazines like Newswatch and TheNEWS were some of the outlets that furnished readers with exposés. But as these magazines became well established, their founders all but became part of the Establishment and their bark diminished to a whimper.
Currently, one online newspaper, Premium Times, claims to be dedicated to investigative reporting. It conducts training in this brand of journalism through the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) and often publishes the fruit of its investigations in what it calls “SPECIAL REPORTS.” The bulk of the Nigerian press (including broadcast media) occasionally publish investigative reports but they are largely engaged in self-censorship to escape punitive fines and clampdowns since Muhammadu Buhari came to power in 2015.
***What are the three main differences between investigative reporting and other methods of reporting?
***Distinguish between a straight news story and an investigative report on the following grounds: a. Objectivity b. Language c. Length
***Paint a verbal portrait of the ideal investigative reporter.
***Assess the effectiveness of Premium Times in its assumed position as an investigative newspaper.
***In five to eight hundred words, buttress the importance of investigative journalism in the 21st Century.
Nwabueze, C. (2012). The art of investigative reporting: A practical guide. Owerri, Nigeria: TopShelve Publishers.
Uwakwe, O. (2015). Specialised journalism: Investigative reporting, interpretative reporting, photo journalism, beat reporting. Enugu, Nigeria: Cecta Nigeria Ltd.
Spark, D. (1999). Investigative reporting: A study in technique. Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge.