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Global Intelligence for the Digital Transition

Three ‘musts’ for a contemporary investigative journalist

Journalism is by definition investigative. However, the depth and scope of possibilities to unearth and bring to light wrongdoings of public interest has increased manifold, thanks to the way the Internet has been evolving in the last decade.

Facts and discourses can be verified across borders, since most information is searchable globally. Data-crunching software can enable a journalist to spot a criminal pattern or abusive commercial practices in minutes. The possibility of classifying and extracting information from massive sets of leaked documents in coordinated global investigative journalism efforts, have made it possible for reporters to provide evidence on  shady dealings on a global scale. Social networks, transparent government practices, public databases, image recognition, mapping, geo-location and open source tools – most of them free – have grown exponentially. They provide an opportunity to any citizen with a computer or a smartphone, special training and good intuition to expose lies behind wars. And free applications and software make it easy for reporters investigating a public interest issue to link a name with a phone in many places of the world, or track criminals’ movements by connecting their usernames and locations.

Of course, journalists still have to do the tedious digging and street reporting, cultivating sources, and clinging on to stories until they make sense. They must have the courage to resist powerful pressures to give up, even when these seem unbearable. But to be a true investigative reporter today; to be able to cope and respond to challenges posed by globalised and sophisticated trends of crime, corruption and environmental depredation, among other evils, it is indispensable to fine-tune the old philosophy with three new practices: be Open, Systematic and Safe.

To be ‘Open’ means to look beyond the borders of your country. While it is true that most people prefer local stories, finding the links to the outside world would probably make them better, as facts can be widely verified and contrasted. Hence, if a reporter finds a corporation polluting a river in her country, she can go to international resources, such as Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project’s (OCCRP) Investigative Dashboard, or to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Corporate Watch. She may find that this same company is owned by an industrial group with equally poor environmental practices elsewhere.

Sometimes a story is too dangerous or too complex for a reporter to cover it alone. So to be “Open” also means to collaborate, sometimes even with media competitors. Moreover, it implies that investigative reporters need to work with experts of other professions, which is partly what, for instance,  Finance Uncovered and Thompson-Reuters’ Reporting on illicit finance in Africa attempt to do in their cross-border investigations.

To be ‘Systematic’ entails a proficient use of tools and software to scrape data and clean it; to organise and visualise it so that the numbers can tell the story. This is what India Spend does so well to explain, for example, the magnitude of pre-trial detention in India, or what the Philippines Center for Investigative Journalism did to profile this year’s candidates in the general elections. The Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) has, among many other resources for investigative journalists, a complete list of tools to get anyone started on data journalism.

There is another side to practising a systematic investigative journalism. It means to look for information in an efficient way, for example, having at hand a template to continuously request public information and even inviting your readers to use it, like does.  Investigative journalism of this kind can also mean systematically encouraging the public at large to help you complete investigations with data, documents, photos, like the OCCRP does with its OCCRP Leaks. Finally, reporters must be systematic in doing their searches. There are sites that help a reporter to connect a domain with a name; or see social media activity underway in a given place. These and many other tools and resources are explained by Paul Myers in his Research Clinic.

The third condition that an investigative journalist must include in their daily routines is Safety: physical, legal and digital. Watching out for yourself, your data and your sources in the digital environment is mandatory and there are many easy to use tools and tutorials – such as Tactical Tech’s resource-packed website – that can guide journalists. Physical security and legal protection are vitally important habits and below is a list of resources and organizations, which provide security advice and support to journalists.

The search tools, the global reachReach1) unique users that visited the site over the course of the reporting period,…

This story originally appeared in of the Open Society Foundation’s Program on Independent Journalism and is reprinted with permission.

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Article by María Teresa Ronderos

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