25 Tips for Everyday Digging

Some of the best tips and techniques come out of the annual meetings by our colleagues in Scandinavia, and this year is no different.

More than 600 participants attended the SKUP conference in Tønsberg, Norway, on April 8-10. Among the presenters: Bruno Ingemann, editor in chief of Jysk Fynske Medier (one of Denmark’s top media groups) and a board member of Investigative Reporting Denmark (IRD); and GIJN co-founder Nils Mulvad of IRD and data journalism consultants Kaas & Mulvad. In this extensive tipsheet, the two veteran journalists offer practical tips that reporters in even the smallest newsrooms can use to good effect, focused on finding great characters and cases to bring your story to life.

1. Find Better Examples

Too often, efforts to find compelling case studies fall short. You need to use a little more time. Check that people really have a relevant story, and that it will get off the ground, especially if you’re working in TV or radio. Think about whether they also can act as the main character in a story. A case study need not be a person. It can be a community. Or an organization.

2. Ask Extra Questions

Many people have an additional story or good insight to share. Work on building trust and ask them extra questions when you talk with them. Always go a small step further, but pause if the source is reluctant.

3. TV Cases

TV cases often overshadow the underlying story. Sometimes they are actually not relevant to what you’re trying to report, which is about an entire system going wrong.

4. From Case to System

Start with a case study or your own hunch that something is wrong here. Check out how big the problem is, for example, by using public records and a survey of knowledgeable sources. Don’t jump at the first case you find. Think about whether you should find a better example to convey the story. Both the cases you find and the overall systematic analysis you do are essential to telling a great story.

5. Surveys Provide Cases

Also use surveys to find cases. Ask simple questions — there must be a possible story in each question. Ask if you can call back — and use that to select case studies. The cases will often be very clear when looking at people’s answers.

6. The Explosive Case

The “explosive case” is a single story that best illustrates the systematic issues you are reporting about. It can set the agenda by itself . This technique was employed at the Berlingske daily, which did a story about police poor response to citizen calls. The explosive case in this instance was a murder in which someone called repeatedly warning that a man was threatening a woman’s life. The cops never showed up, and the man killed the women. The incident was covered up by police, who registered the crime as a traffic accident. Here the case is “explosive” and tells everything about the problem.

7. Consider Anonymous Cases

Although anonymous cases are weak evidence, they may be described in great detail in court cases and other records. They can make an important contribution to the coverage.

8. Find the Real Experts

Who really knows the subject from direct experience? Reporters too often use one type of source: arm-chair experts.

9. Build a Community of Sources

It can be faithful readers, for example, such as people over age 65 in a particular area, who will be especially helpful to find cases or confirm problems.

10. File FOI Cases

Think about possible Freedom of Information cases relevant to your story. Request them in plenty of time. Call and build a good relationship with the FOI authority, especially in municipal and regional agencies.

11. How Authorities Detect Their Errors

When you discover an error, ask how that authority or organization manages such problems. Are the errors collected and used to correct the organization’s activities? Can you gain any broader insight into them? As Swedish TV’s Nils Hanson recommends: Watch for authorities who also dig: labor and food safety officials, administration watchdogs, ombudsman, and others.

12. Integrate Digging into Everyday Life

From Nils Hanson: Every day give a reporter a free day, and let him or her dig into a story. Make a schedule where two journalists cover routine stories so another can dig. Go for 75% coverage on routine stories — not 100% – to allow for more investigation.

13. Cause-Impact-Solution

Look at all three elements of a case: Cause-Impact-Solution. It is rare to only focus on one aspect of a story, but structure the work, so you focus in on key angles. Then you can produce smaller stories, each with a different focus, and release them on different days.

14. Follow Up

Too often stories fade away. Take a break, come back, and grab what you didn’t get last time. Ask for what was unreachable in your previous story. Ask for access. Get data. Make notes in your electronic calendar for future follow-ups.

15. Minimum and Maximum

Consider which stories are easiest to complete. Often they are based on a case that you already have. Kill those projects that are unlikely to bear fruit. Think of minimum and maximum stories. Start with a minimum story you know you can deliver to your editors, so you don’t over-promise.

16. Create a Timeline

Creating a timeline — in a spreadsheet, for example — provides a good overview of a story. It almost always shows where the holes in a story are.

17. Get Yourself a Buddy

Investigative journalism is not for soloists. People are different, but for most it is too hard to do it alone. Investigative journalists are subject to different pressures from sources and the outside world than other professions. Make sure that your team members have the same standards for quality and methods, but that otherwise you have complementary skills.

18. Enlist Support from Above

While many bosses and colleagues think that investigative stories take too long, there is always an editor who loves digging. Find him or her. Everyone is happy when you break a big story, but along the way there may be sad faces.

19. Fitting In

Make alliances with other editors. Offer help and support to colleagues in other departments when you can. If you help others, they will usually be happy to help you.

20. Join a Network

Participate in conferences, courses and training. Investigative journalists are real good to share techniques and tips. You always come home with a series of ideas and tools in your head.

21. Get Support at Home

Investigative journalism can consume all your personal time, including, too often, time reserved for your family. Be honest with those close to you and ask for support and understanding, instead of thinking you can manage everything.

22. Get Tips

People need to know who you are and that they can trust you. Be easy to reach by email and telephone. Be visible in the local area. Keep your agreements with sources, colleagues, and others.

23. Find Good Sources

Create good relationships within the organizations you cover. Spend time with line officers in the municipality. They are hired to solve specific tasks, and they know where the problems are. Find internal sources (whistleblowers) that you can draw on to get stories confirmed or denied.

24. Get the Hard Data

Learn to use spreadsheets to get a handle on the data. Get started, for example, by using it for your own records.

25. Good Tools for Everyday Digging

This was original published on the website for Global Investigative Journalism Network

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