Tips for investigative journalism

How to write a piece of investigative journalism

<a href="" target="_new">Image by Emilia Murray</a> released via <a href="" target="_blank">Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0</a>
Image by Emilia Murray released via Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

The following are some of the points from a training session given by Marcus Tanner to the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence. The text sets out some of the main points to remember when embarking on producing a piece of investigative journalism.

Hook the reader

  • If possible, try an introduction that illustrates a fact, rather than just stating the fact. Find a person/family/scene/human interest story to illustrate the dilemma/phenomenon about which you’re writing.
  • If you are writing about women starting to have children in their 40s, introduce us to one such woman, rather than just stating that “20 per cent of women giving birth to their first child are now aged 40 and above”.
  • Make sure that the introduction illustrates the rest of the story. It must provide a relevant lead in to that story.
  • Don’t forget your introduction. If we meet Julia, aged 41, having her first baby in the introduction, it will be unsatisfactory if we never encounter her again. The reader will want to know what happened later, so plan on saving some material/quotes from/about her for the conclusion.
  • It is easy to fall in love with some scene or incident that is interesting but which is not relevant to the rest of the story.
  • A colour intro is a good way to hook in the reader. Don’t push it too far. It should not be more than one or two paragraphs. Then you must outline the substantial point of your story.
  • This second section should contain a concise explanation of the topic under discussion. It must be accompanied by relevant facts, figures and percentages.
  • The second section of your story needs to contain as much hard fact as possible. It is essential that nothing in this section is vague, unsourced, uncontextualised or imprecise.
  • Contextualise all the facts relevantly. Don’t say, “100,000 people have lost jobs in the country recently”. Say, “According to the Chamber of Commerce, in its figures for 2009, 100,000 people lost their jobs over the past 12 months, mostly in mining and transport sectors. As a result, the total jobless figure at the start of 2010 stood at 350,000, which is nine per cent of the working-age population.”

Keep titles short

  • Long titles take up valuable space. Don’t waste words by writing out professional and political titles in full.
  • No need to say “John Smith, State Secretary for Economy, Exports, Imports, Businesses and Trade,” just say “John Smith, the economy minister” – that’s four words instead of 12.
  • Avoid the title president unless it is the head of state or someone occupying a similarly grand function, for example “president of the supreme court”. Use director, manager, head, chief, chair, chairman.
  • Don’t call people doctor unless they are medical doctors.

Get your facts right

  • Check all your facts, and credit the sources unless it is unsafe to do so.
  • If it ever looks as though you are being careless or evasive with your facts, it may well demolish your story.
  • Don’t waste words by sourcing facts that are universally agreed.
  • Some statistics, such as unemployment statistics, need to be sourced, but only briefly. For example say, the chamber of commerce, the ministry for employment, etc.
  • Give detailed sources for more complex, controversial or debatable facts.

Get the tone right

  • Try to avoid sounding dry and official or sensationalist.
  • No present tense. (“The nurse is walking towards me.”)
  • No triple dots (“I looked into her eyes… “)
  • Avoid exclamation marks (He looked crazy!)
  • No italics/repetitions/capitals (“Someone is screaming… Someone is SCREAMING!”)
  • No exaggerated comparisons; do not compare a badly-run hospital or prison to a Nazi concentration camp.
  • Do not suggest that angry, unpleasant officials are like Hitler.
  • Do not call people fascists unless they use that term for themselves.
  • Do not patronize: Never refer to old women as granny, or refer to them by their first names as if they were children. The same goes for old men, peasants/rural people/ poor people, etc.

Don’t get personal

  • There is a place for the author in his or her story. But it should be as discreet and neutral a place as possible – and not in the foreground.
  • If the word “I” appears in every paragraph, something is going wrong. The only exceptions for this are if you make yourself the subject of your own story.
  • Don’t use quote marks without attribution.

Winding up

  • Don’t just tail off or let it look like you ran out of steam.
  • It is often best to end with a quote.
  • The ending must in some way refer back to the beginning.
Marcus Tanner
Marcus Tanner is an editor and trainer for the Balkans Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN. He was the Balkans correspondent for The Independent from 1988 to 1994, assistant foreign editor from 1995 to 2000 and returned there as part-time leader writer from 2006 to 2015. In 2006 he worked as an editor in Kyrgyzstan for IWPR. He was an editor for the British police inspectorate, HMICFRS, from 2015 to 2017. He has written a number of books on Croatia, Ireland, the Celts and Hungary, published by Yale university Press, and a biography of the Balkan explorer Edith Durham, published by Tauris.