Story-Based Inquiries: A Systematic Approach to Investigating Corruption
By Birgit Schwarz, Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, South Africa
Published in 2009, Hunter et al.’s Story-Based Inquiry: A manual for investigative journalists has become one of the most widely distributed reporting methods in the world. It is, so the authors say, “the first text that treats investigative journalism as an integrated process focused on producing an original story.”
The groundbreaking investigative work of two young and hungry Washington Post reporters that helped topple a US president for abuse of power has fostered an idea that investigative journalists more often than not act on a tip-off by anonymous sources, then focus all their energy and determination on gathering corroborating information, after which the story more or less writes itself.
Contrary to this widespread belief, Hunter et al. are of the view that “the core task” is not finding information but that “the core task is telling a story”.
By having the story inform the investigative process, from story idea to research, from writing to fact-checking to publication, reporters will be able to embark on a highly targeted, efficient and systematic investigation of the issue at hand.
A story-based approach to investigations does not dispute the need for the highest standards of tough reporting, information gathering and quality control as set by those two crusading Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein; on the contrary. It provides a stringent framework that puts an end to pure “fishing expeditions” and places the reporter, not the sources, in control of the investigation. It also provides a skill set and methodology that can be used by any hard-nosed, inquisitive, tenacious journalist with a passion for justice and a desire for reform of corrupt and/or inhumane practices.
Investigative reporting should not be an elite practice. It is also not limited to subjects of crime and corruption or of abuse of power on a grand scale only. Investigations of small scale corruption at a local level, such as the misallocation of public funds for school feeding schemes or the theft of medicines from public hospitals for private profit are incredibly impactful as these issues have a direct effect on people’s lives in the communities where they happen. In fact the most effective way to hone investigative skills in a country such as Malawi, given the pressure on the media and civil society, may be through topics that are less controversial yet have a direct impact on the quality of life of specific communities.
By presuming that every investigative story idea remains a hypothesis until proven true, the methodology of story- or hypothesis-based inquiry provides the guiding principle, which determines every step of the process. The methodology not only helps a reporter to narrow down the focus of the actual investigation. It also allows him or her to see more easily which information to seek where; which of this information might be hidden or buried because somebody does not want it revealed; who might be in a position to lift the veil; and how to organise and structure the collected data in a way that it tells a story that is true, impactful and accurate and which adheres to the highest ethical standards of the profession.