Four Essential Pointers for Aspiring Investigative Journalists

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The Global Investigative Journalism Network defines investigative journalism as “an in-depth, systematic, and original reporting and resource, usually involving the unearthing and exposing of secrets. This includes the practice of relying on data and public records, with a razor-sharp focus on transparency, accountability, and social justice.

Here are a couple of examples of pieces of investigative journalism that have transformed the world in one way or another:

  • Ronan Farrow’s groundbreaking New Yorker piece on Harvey Weinstein and how he abused his power, wealth, and position to sexually abuse and harass the women he worked with. The piece brought about the #MeToo movement, which exposed scores of men who have done the same. It went beyond Hollywood—the movement touched multiple industries across the world as well.
  • The Federalist Papers” by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay changed the course of the United States constitution for good.

This definition and these examples, then, mean that being an investigative journalist is the perfect path for those who have a knack for writing and want to change the world through their skill and talent. Here are some tips and pointers to help those who want to explore this career.

Find relevant issues to investigate

It doesn’t matter how interesting your chosen topic is if it doesn’t affect people who are oppressed, marginalized, or disenfranchised in society. One example is in-fighting between people of the middle or upper class, like the sensational story in the New York Times about the bad art friend. It is certainly interesting, but it reads more like a salacious piece about friends falling out. It could have been a piece about how ableism often presents itself as microaggressions, but the writer missed out on that relevant detail.

Consider opting for stories that will affect your audience or the little guy. You can do a lighter piece on how the government supports small businesses through the HUBZone program, and how aspiring entrepreneurs can benefit from it. If you want to focus more on exposing corrupt practices and how they hurt the average person, you can do that as well. Just make sure that whatever you put out is relevant and can change your readers’ lives for the better.

Find a mentor

Most journalist jobs will require a bachelor’s degree in the field, so if you manage to land one, make sure to stay connected with at least one of your favorite professors. You need to have a mentor that you can refer back to every time you have a question. While Google might be a good resource, it is no match for human experience and wisdom.

Keep the relationships you build during university and internships so you have a strong network of people you can talk to when you need guidance. Make sure the mentors you let into your inner circle are above reproach and are known for their integrity and ethics so that you won’t be led down the wrong path.

Keep reading

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Because investigative journalism requires so much research and technical writing know-how, you need to learn from other journalists who have found their voice and mastered the craft. You need to grasp how other successful journalists get ahold of information, and how they interpret the data they find. But make sure to read from publications that are known for their rigorous vetting process so that you don’t fall for fake news or pieces that have not been properly fact-checked and vetted.

Be rigorous in your research

You need to arm yourself with information on how you can get ahold of the documents you need. You need written files and sources to lend credence to your reporting, so you cannot neglect this essential part of the job. Here are some tips you need to know when you’re hunting down documents:

  • The Freedom of Information Act requests usually take some time to process, so make sure to spend that valuable time looking into other sources that can help validate that specific source. You can interview people to help support the information that the document holds.
  • Keep exploring all possible avenues. Don’t just zero in on one source; look for other potential sources to validate the information. Write down two lists: The documents you need, and the strategies you can employ to gain access to those documents.

Being an investigative journalist is a noble task that can help people find justice—especially those who have no other recourse. Be a champion for those who have no other choice, and you would be transforming the world, one story at a time.

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