Let obstacles in the text give you feedback
If a passage can’t be made to work, either you do not understand what you are trying to say, or it is not worth saying. Usually, it’s the latter. But if it’s too important to cut, take the time to think about what you are really trying to say. This is the true work of writing, and it is in these moments that your story gets deeper and stronger.
How Long Should You Go?
Thirty years ago, it was common for magazines in the US to publish stories up to 7000 words. Now, magazines and newspapers rarely publish stories, even investigations, over 2500 words. Likewise, the market for video or film investigations now requires shorter formats. One solution to this situation is to accept the space limitations with which you are faced, for the sake of publishing the story – or sometimes, because the condensed or edited version has more impact than the original, and reads or views better. (There is a lot of fat in most media.) A second solution is to propose alternatives to simple cutting. There are several publication strategies in the history of journalism that can increase the impact of a long story, as well as the benefits for the public and the media:
Serialisation: Write or edit it as a series. Instead of one long story, write several shorter ones. It will be easier for the media to publish. It will also be easier and more powerful to promote, because each installment of the series will call attention to the others. The media may also reprint the series as a whole.
Leveraging: Spread the story across different media. A newspaper may have room for only a short version of the story. But a web site may be able to accept a longer version. Make sure that you keep the rights to different versions of your story, and that you distribute it as widely as possible among different media.
Branding:Establish pre-eminence through regular appearances. How much space do you really need? A great many investigative stories are over-written, and too long. Very often, they contain material for more than one story, on different aspects of the initial hypothesis. Rather than publish a single blockbuster story, consider publishing related stories regularly – at greater intervals than a series, but not so great that the public forgets the issue and your expertise. This is one way of building your brand as a journalist, and of building the media’s brand.
Focus on a topic:
1. Explain in your own words the three criteria of editing. Do you follow these rules in your everyday job?
2. How did you understand the phrase “a good story is like a train”?
3. What, from your point of view, is the best variant to publish a long story with great amount of details – serialisation, leveraging or branding?
Stage 6: Style of reporting
Elements of style are extremely important when writing investigative stories. The opinion of your audience depends on style and coverage directly. If you express events as they were happening indeed, if you manage to be persuasive and truthful enough, readers will definitely believe you. So, look further for some useful advice:
Stop being dull
Most of us have been trained to think that the job of a reporter is to simply present the facts and allow the viewer to draw conclusions. Thus the facts must be uncolored by the reporter’s voice or feelings. Any other approach will not look “serious.”
Of course, such a tone can have great effect when used properly and consciously. But it is nonetheless strange to hear that reporters should not allow their passions, personalities and values to appear in their work. To absorb meaning, viewers must also open their senses. In various ways, they must feel the impact of what they are seeing and hearing, or they will not understand it. An investigator who fails to give them this opportunity will fail, period.
Yet the investigator must also be objective in a specific way: neutrality and honesty toward all the facts in a given situation. Such neutrality does not, and cannot, mean indifference toward the consequences of certain facts, which is what many politicians would love to obtain when they accuse reporters of lacking objectivity. The fundamental purpose of investigative reporting is reform, and the desire to reform the world is inherently individual and subjective.
Objective facts – facts whose existence cannot seriously be questioned, regardless of whom observes them – are the means rather than the end of this process. Viewers do not want or need only information. They also require meaning, and someone must create that meaning. Part of the meaning is that the story matters, and so the reporter has felt it. In short, tell the story in a way that gets attention, and that the facts support.
Most writers worry too much about style. Our conviction is that authentic style is personal and a function of character, and that it will emerge naturally over time. Your style should not overcome the material; if it does, the material seems unimportant. Remember that a simple style can easily be made more complicated, but a complicated style is hard to simplify. Do not get caught in your own devices and mannerisms. The key to investigative writing is rhythm, and too much style will slow it down.
Most reporters are treated like lackeys or cretins by their wealthy or powerful sources. That’s one reason why some reporters do not have faith in their own worth. They become journalists so that they may frequent people they believe are more interesting, active and important than themselves.
These attitudes are fatal to investigation, and they are more common than you may think. Every year, among the journalists I train are several who find a perfectly good subject, do excellent research, and then betray their own findings. They discover an unpleasant truth, but they allow a well-placed source to explain that it is not the truth, after all. Typically the well-placed source adopts a tone that mixes wisdom and warning, and the reporter unconsciously submits.
For example, listen to this famous doctor at the end of an investigation into medically terminated pregnancies: “Sometimes uncertainty can lead couples to make choices that are acceptable for some, and less so for others.” The doctor sounds very nice, but he is denying the facts discovered by the reporters, which is that medical personnel, and not couples, were making these life and death decisions. By giving him the last word, the reporters subverted their work. Watch out for those moments of self-doubt.
A variation of this mistake is the reporter who launches a savage attack on his or her target, then in the last lines says something like, “Oh, he’s really not so bad after all.” This is an expression of the reporter’s unconscious fear and longing for approval. If you found the truth, tell it. Resist seeking reassurance from sources who simultaneously congratulate you for your intelligence and take you for a fool.
Be cruel, not nasty
The stress of conducting and concluding an investigation can lead to fatigue, frustration and anger. All of these contribute to the danger that the reporter will adopt an insulting, aggressive tone. It’s a defense mechanism, but it signals weakness to the viewer and the target, and bad faith if you go on trial for defamation. Don’t pollute serious accusations with petty insults. You will pay for it dearly. Be sure to reread your drafts for signs of gratuitous nastiness, and cut them.
Focus on a topic:
1. How does the style of investigative reporting differ from news journalism? Make your list of special characteristics.
2. Do you agree with the author’s recommendations? Which point do you find the most appropriate for your job?
3. What does the author mean under “self-doubt”? Have you faced this problem in your work? What are the pluses and minuses of doubt in journalism?
Comment on one of the following quotations:
1. “Language is not simply a reporting device for experience but a defining framework for it.” (Benjamin Whorf, a famous linguist)
Stage 7: Fact-checking first
Around the world, top investigative teams include someone – an editor, or even a full-time fact checker – whose job is to guide the process of making sure an investigation was perfectly executed and composed. There are four main components involved:
· The first is making sure that you are, in fact, telling a true story – not just a story in which each fact is true, but one in which the facts add up to a larger truth. If an alternative explanation makes more sense than yours, something is wrong.
· Then, you confirm that you know the source or sources for every factual assertion in the story.
· In the process of verifying your sources, you identify and correct mistakes in the facts as stated.
· At the same time, you remove emotional noise from your story – gratuitous bits of insult, aggression or hostility that made their way into your narrative when you were tired or frustrated or scared.
Repeat: You have to get the story right, you have to cut or change the facts that aren’t right, and you must make sure the tone of your story is justified.
Our friend Ariel Hart, a top fact-checker at the Columbia Journalism Review, said this: “I have never checked a story that had no mistakes, whether five pages long or two paragraphs.” She added: “In fairness, some of the ‘mistakes’ I find are matters of interpretation, and authors usually agree to change them. Virtually all articles, though, contain errors on objective matters of fact: a year slightly off; old data; misspellings; widely reported information taken from secondary sources, but wrong. And of course, ‘facts’ pulled from the writer's mental archives. Errors often turn up when the author says, ‘You don't need to check that, I know that's right.’”
You will make mistakes. Everyone does. Sometimes it’s the way you say something, and sometimes it’s the substance of what you’re saying. Either way, it’s a problem. Smart people correct these problems, and amateurs hope that no one will notice them. Unfortunately, someone always does, and it’s usually someone who is not your friend. If you’re not willing to acknowledge and correct your mistakes, and to be nice about doing it, change your attitude or change your profession.
It’s highly possible that no one in your shop has ever fact-checked a story before, and that no one ever fact-checked one of your stories in particular. So here’s how it works:
· You need at least two people – the author, and whoever is checking the story. Each has a copy of the story.
· View the entire story to get the overall picture. Is it biased, or fair? Does it feel as if something is missing? Who, or what, might be able to present a different picture?
· Then go through the story fact by fact, line by line. The checker – an editor, a colleague, a lawyer, or just a competent friend – asks of every fact: “How do you know that?”
· The author gives a source. If the source is a document, both parties look at the document to make sure it is quoted accurately. If the source is an interview, they look at the interview notes, or listen to the recordings or tapes.
· If there is no source, the author has to find one. If no source can be found, the passage must be cut.
· The fact-checker challenges in particular the author’s interpretation of the target’s motives, goals or thoughts. In general, this material should be cut. However, if there is documentation to establish its reality – for example, letters or diaries that document an individual’s state of mind at a given moment – it can be included.
As you can see, this process is not complicated. It may seem a little tedious as described. Believe us, it is anything but tedious, because as the process goes on, the story becomes more and more real, and its impact becomes palpable. Going through the process is also a lot less tedious than trying to defend yourself, in a courtroom or any other space, against a charge that you didn’t know what you were talking about.
Focus on a topic:
1. What place should be allotted for fact-checking in investigative process? Why?
2. Some media have their own fact-checking departments. Can you name any of them? If not, try to find out.
3. Mistakes as matters of interpretation – can you name any examples of such possible “mistakes”? Have you ever argued with your editor about this point?
Choose one of the statements and write an essay expressing your ideas on the issue:
1. “Journalism is a craft that takes years to learn. It's like golf. You never get it right all the time. It's a game of fewer errors, better facts, and better reporting” (Ben Huh, an Internet entrepreneur)
2. “I think all good reporting is the same thing - the best attainable version of the truth.” (Carl Bernstein, an investigative journalist)
Stage 8: Dealing with problems
Investigative reporting almost always chooses quite dangerous subjects – they may be touching, shocking, intriguing, revealing. But in any case you face with complicated ethic problems that sometimes can’t be solved at once. What should you do when you have any difficulties or feel unsafe?
Don’t misuse the power of insults
Taking gratuitous hostility or aggression out of your story should be common sense: Leaving in such noise increases your legal risks, and can infuriate or humiliate your target to the point where he or she reacts violently. Of course, journalists often mock or insult their targets. It’s one thing to do so in an editorial; an editorial, after all, is an opinion, and everyone has an opinion. But the effect is far more brutal when it is coupled with investigative revelations.
Reporters should be very, very careful about misusing this power. If an investigation leads to substantial charges against someone, it is generally not necessary to add personal insult to the recipe.
In most cases we’ve seen, reporters become injurious when they are tired or frightened. Fatigue generates the fight or flight syndrome associated with the physiology of stress; so does aggression, real or imagined, on the part of the target or yourself. Do not be naïve about whether or not this can happen to you: It can, and it will. Be alert to this danger. Make sure that what you put in the story results from conscious choices.