Ways to find a story
Generating good story ideas isn’t easy – in fact, the editorial focus group on this chapter, made up of regional journalists, said it was probably one of the hardest parts of a journalist’s job. So, here we’ll consider the various alternative ways of finding stories:
- Your own experience
Very often, reporters complain “I don’t have enough evidence!” when they have been to the site of a story, spoken to role players and recorded detailed descriptions of what they saw. Yet all this is real, concrete evidence. In the same way, something that happens to you is no less valid as the starting-point for a story than something that happens to someone else. The advantage is, you know it is happening: you experienced it. You are your own best and first witness, and it is always preferable to have first-hand experience and observation to help you shape your own view of the story – backed up, of course, by detailed notes taken at the time; never rely on your memory. If you have a cellphone with a camera, photograph that leaking sewer as soon as you see it.
- Experience of friends and family
All the same advantages and disadvantages apply to the people you know and work with. Their experiences are real, but may not be representative, and may be biased by personal feelings. So, again, they can be the starting points for good investigations – but only starting points.
The Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) notes: “Some people you know may do jobs where a commitment not to disclose information goes with the job… a policeman, for example. So think first about how you use the people you know. And don’t imagine that because someone is a friend or neighbour, they don’t mind helping you out – it might make life difficult for them. Always get permission before you use someone’s personal story.”
Steer clear, however, of things told to you by friends that are not direct experience, as in: “I have a cousin who knows a woman who was asked for a bribe at the airport.” Unless the woman has a name, an address, and can be interviewed, this is just rumour or urban legend.
- Roadside radio
No medium is better at generating urban legends than ‘roadside radio’: the fast-traveling gossip and anecdotes of street traders, taxi drivers and passengers, and people in bars and cafés. Periodically, rumours of ghost hitch-hikers, or miracle cures, or magical tricksters who make penises disappear, infect whole cities or villages.
Of course, the legend itself can become the subject of an investigation: is it really true? Why do people believe it? What does it tell us about our times and our country?
But far more useful is the way roadside radio can alert us to real trends and changes. The media is often accused of ‘agendasetting’ and telling readers what they ought to be interested in, but popular rumour also sets its own agendas. Just as you keep your eyes open for physical clues to stories, so your ears need to be alert to what people around you are discussing. Are girls disappearing, suspected victims of trafficking, in a certain suburb? Have people begun abusing a new type of homebrew? Has a well-known businessman suddenly stopped spending money, or a top policeman begun socialising with the criminal elite? Roadside radio will tell you about all these developments, and many of the tales will be true.
Your first step, however, has to be confirming the validity of the rumour. Cross-check with sources who are in a position to know. Once you have confirmed that the rumour has some substance, you can begin planning your story.
- Local newspapers
Former IRE executive director Brant Houston reminds us in his and IRE’s Investigative Reporter’s Handbook that local newspapers carry many seeds for investigative stories. A story lurks, for example, behind practically every paid legal notice: whether it deals with wills, name changes, foreclosures, auctions, tenders, seized properties or unclaimed property. Local newspapers also carry valuable reports on new construction or government projects and on local court cases. You may find the name of your school bus driver in a drunken driving case, or the name of a financial officer in a shoplifting case.
- Following unpublished stories
We do this far too infrequently. Reader surveys and focus groups invariably tell us that readers love follow-ups. They want to know what happens next, or why it happened, or what the story is behind the terse daily news. Look especially for news stories that neglect to ask ‘why’, or that seem to focus narrowly on only one aspect of an issue. Look, too, for alternative ways of covering obvious, or regular stories such as world or national commemorative days.
Remember, though, that a follow-up rests on information that is already out in the public domain. Other journalists or publications may seize on exactly the same line of investigative follow-up as you, especially if the original story has obvious gaps in it. So you will need to ensure that you have an original angle, and may need to plan speedy work and publication to beat any rivals.
One form of follow-up that we often neglect is asking ‘stupid’ questions – in other words, questions that are so basic and almost naive that they are neglected. When every newspaper is speculating whether a politician took a bribe to vote a certain way, why not instead investigate whether he needed to be bribed, or why his price was so low/high? You may uncover some surprises.
- Reading and surfing the web
Reading widely is your most important source of story ideas and the best way to upgrade your professionalism and writing skills. If you’re serious about your beat, accessing everything that is published about it is a professional duty. If you are not prepared to do this, investigative journalism is not the career for you.
What’s more, without the detailed, concrete knowledge that reading will give you of how systems and processes are supposed to work, how will you detect when something is going wrong? Don’t spend your time simply processing the information that happens to come your way – from press releases, statements and public events. Seek out new information to broaden your own knowledge base.
Although scarce resources, or geography, may limit your access to overseas publications or the Internet, you should use whatever channels you can to keep up to date. The various information services of embassies and non-governmental organisations often have free reading rooms or libraries, often with Internet access. If you have no alternatives, get into the habit of visiting these whenever you can.
Official and NGO reports often look dull and daunting, and many journalists see reading these as a routine task, rather than a source of exciting stories. But if you read them carefully, rather than simply using the front page or a press release summary, you can often uncover new and challenging information that can kick off investigations.
- Checking public information
This is another basic professional obligation. When someone is appointed to a new post, check the public information about them:
their life story, education, the directorships they hold, etc. When a new enterprise is founded, check the main players. Cross-check too: look for links between them and their colleagues, or rivals, or relevant figures in government. If the new Agriculture Minister also sits on the board of a major grain supply company, is this legal? Even if it is permitted, surely there’s the possibility of conflict of interest? Discovering these types of links is a potent source of stories.
Any reports of scarce supplies – whether of petrol or land or scholarships – make the likelihood of corruption in the allocation of those resources greater. Asking questions such as who the gatekeepers are on these supplies, and what the allocation mechanisms are supposed to be, can help you to track down the points at which scarcity is being turned into somebody’s personal gain.
Another form of routine checking is having regular conversations with your contacts in various fields. We talk at length about handling sources in Chapter 4, but it is worth pointing out here that if you only contact sources when you need them, they will begin to feel used, whereas if you meet with them regularly without a set agenda, you’ll establish a good relationship and your conversations will produce news of new developments before any other reporter is alerted. We call this ‘working’ your contacts.
But stories from these sources will not automatically jump out and wave at you. You will have to use reasoning to work out the story. Says Edem Djokotoe:
“For instance, in a country of 12 million people where almost 80 percent of the population earn under one US dollar a day, from which sources do political parties get the financial and logistical resources they need to operate on a national scale, with a presence in 72 districts? Sheer common sense will suggest that money for running parties will not come from the sale of party cards or from fund-raising dinners. So where is the money coming from? It is easy for ruling parties to divert public funds to run party activities, but the question is: how exactly does the skimming occur and which functionaries make it happen? The fact that in Zambia political parties are not obliged to publish their financial statements and make the source of their funding known makes this a story worth pursuing.”