From idea to hypothesis
Very often, you’ll find you have the story idea in broad general terms that will allow you to investigate a wide (and probably unmanageable) universe of topics. A good technique for developing and refining this idea is to write your way into it. Try to compose a story summary: a paragraph that describes what the final story will look like. This is a way of opening newsroom minds to the story, and sketching out a range of possible explanations. It also helps you to see whether the story can be treated as local, or whether it might have national, regional or even pan-African implications.
Local, national or regional?
A lot has been written about the impact of water privatisation on poor people in Africa. X municipality in our country privatised its water services three years ago, and our paper’s local office has been receiving many complaints that water is now unaffordable and repair services are unreliable. Now there has been a big outbreak of diarrhoea in the area. Some people are saying the water supply is no longer poor; others are saying that people who cannot afford private water are using other unsafe sources. This story will look at the impact of water privatisation on the community and whether our water is still safe.
This ‘big picture’ approach is a good basis for further brainstorming. It takes you some way towards focusing the story, but not all the way. It’s quite abstract and general – almost academic rather than journalistic. It doesn’t define its terms, and raises issues that could take the story in different directions or split it into different themes.
- Is our focus safety or cost? These could be two stories.
- Does ‘impact’ mean impact only on the poor? Are there problems in middle-class communities too? What about industrial and agricultural water users in the area?
- Do we want to see if the same problems exist in other regions? In other countries around us? Internationally?
(These questions, of course, may form the basis of other, future stories. Don’t throw away the results of such brainstorming.)
There are some other, more detailed frameworks that can help you tighten this very general level of description and see exactly what your IJ project should be. The first is the classic formula for focusing a story:
What’s been happening? So what? (Why should our readers care?)
What’s been happening? This puts the focus of your story firmly on the NEWS aspect. There’s been a major outbreak of waterborn diarrhoea in X, a district where water supply has been privatised. So what? Our readers want to know why, and whether their own water supplies and health are also at risk. We need to find out the source of the epidemic. If it can be linked to privatised water, we need to discover that link. And whatever the risk factors, we need to see if they exist – or are likely to be created – anywhere else, and warn our readers.
This framework gives you useful ideas about packaging and presenting your story so it is appealing to readers. But it is still broad, and doesn’t indicate the practical activities, precise focus or levels of depth in the investigation.
Who did it? How did they do it? What are the consequences? How can it be put right?
This is an IJ outlining approach that many US journalism textbooks recommend. It clearly sets out the stages of the planned investigation and is appropriate for stories where there are already strong indications that corruption exists. But assuming somebody’s guilt before you have looked at all the evidence can be dangerous. It ignores another key IJ question: conspiracy or chaos? In other words, is the outbreak the result of deliberate neglect and cost-cutting that risks safety, or the result of slackness, inappropriate systems that don’t suit the circumstances, inadequate resources, or a dozen other causes that can’t be pinned on one ‘villain’. It might be better to ask more neutral opening questions:
What went wrong? How did it go wrong? Why did it go wrong? What are the consequences? How can it be put right?
Thomas Oliver, assistant managing editor of projects (investigative stories) on the American newspaper The Atlanta Journal- Constitution, suggests three questions that bring together news and in-depth, focused planning:
What’s the news? What’s the story? What’s the keyword?
‘What’s the news?’ makes us sum up in a sentence what might be going wrong: the epidemic again. ‘What’s the story?’ focuses on how it can be told – for example, by telling the story of how people find water when they cannot buy it from a private company. Or by going to the water plant and looking at the adequacy of safety checks in the process. And that third question, ‘What’s the keyword?’ makes the journalist boil down the story idea to a key aspect: perhaps ‘affordability’ or ‘cutting corners’.
Going through this process means you have to choose a direction for your investigation. When you have collected all your evidence, you can return to these three questions to direct your writing of the story. Oliver notes: “projects tend to become all-inclusive and sometimes exhaustively cover everything one ever wanted to know about a subject. This is a weakness, not a strength.”
A final question to ask is:
What’s the rationale? (Why are we doing this story?)
Examining your rationale puts the spotlight on the values that underlie the story. This is the point where aspects such as public interest are examined, and asking and answering this question may put the brake on stories that are simply exposure for the sake of exposure.
Some questions that can flesh out the rationale for a story include:
- Who will benefit/ who may suffer if we do this story?
- Whom does the story challenge or call to account?
- How important is the issue?
- Will the story stir debate around values or behaviour?
- Will the story highlight faulty systems or processes?
- What could the story reveal that wasn’t previously known?
- Has the story been covered before or elsewhere?
You may wish to take questions from all these frameworks and weave them together into a personal planning process. That’s fine – any framework is useful if it helps you decide:
- Whether you really have a story;
- What that story is; and
- What direction your investigation should take.