Top tips from The Guardian’s investigative journalism masterclass

The Guardian and Observer offices

Guardian reporters Felicity Lawrence, David Leigh and Robert Booth shared their investigative journalism tips and insights at The Guardian‘s investigative journalism masterclass last month.

1. Think about what will give the story colour

Robert Booth always thinks about what details will make a story interesting, but also how to tell the story. “I’m always looking for opps to get good images and films,” he says.

2. Don’t ignore information that’s already out there

Robert says, “Don’t ignore information that’s already available – build on it and expand it.”

3. Choose a subject you care about

It’s easier to work on an investigation when you care about the subject matter, but Robert says you should also think about the “capacity for revelations”, the complexity and breadth of the subject and whether you’ll be able to get access to the people at the centre of the story.

4. Plan as you go

Robert advises would-be investigative reporters to plan the story as they follow the trail of information that’s emerging.

5. Talk through your ideas with someone else for a different perspective

“I often talk to my wife about work – it bores her to tears,” Robert says. It can also help to focus your storytelling if you think about how you’d explain your ideas to a friend at the pub.

6. Question the motives of your sources

Always think about why sources are talking to you and whether there are any conflicts of interest. Robert recommends double-checking their information against other sources to verify it.

7. Be in it for the long haul

Felicity says that her coverage of the horsemeat scandal required “real dogged determination. We had to do a real jigsaw detective story over a long period”.

8. Talk to organisations with a special interest

Felicity recommends speaking to any interested parties who might be able to give you more information, such as charities and pressure groups.

9. Use a variety of sources

Felicity says that Duedil company registers can be used to track individuals and companies. Trade press can be a great source of background information too.

10. Look for stories in official reports

Official reports are often written in a way that hides interesting information, but Felicity says they’re worth reading carefully and that you’ll often find useful information buried in the appendix.

Read the reports more than once so you don’t miss anything important.

11. Pay attention to detail

Read everything carefully and think about names, addresses and dates. “It might sound nerdy – it is nerdy,” Felicity says. “It is research-dense and you have to be obsessive.”

Bury yourself in the language and make sure you understand the jargon – rival businesses can be a good source of information on industry practices.

12. Don’t be discouraged by legal threats

“The longest legal letter I had was 12 pages – that’s when you give each other high fives on the investigations desk because you know you’re on to something,” Felicity says.

David Leigh warns that lawyers will try to bully you to stop you publishing a story. When you receive a letter from a lawyer, you should read the final paragraph because that’s where you’ll find out if they’re going to take any legal action against you.

13. Give a right of reply

To protect yourself against libel, it’s important to give a right of reply to those at the centre of a story so that the Reynolds defence will apply.

Felicity phones the subjects of her stories to let them know that she’s going to give them the opportunity to respond, then follows it up with a detailed email. She says, “Make contact at a senior level, that way you know the right person’s got the email. Be friendly and polite.”

David says that The Guardian uses a template for the Reynolds letter and it’s important to put everything in writing in case you end up in court. Itemise any allegations so that people can respond to specific points and give them a deadline so that the ball’s in their court.

14. Don’t scare sources by whipping out your notebook right away

“If I go to a place for the first time, I often run to the loo to write everything down,” Felicity says.

15. Use existing stories as a starting point

Felicity says, “If you’re reading a magazine and think that something doesn’t make sense then you start digging.”

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