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14. Investigative journalism

Investigating is proving something. Content matters more than form. This genre asks for extreme intellectual rigor and avoids approximations. It’s an exercise even more difficult than reporting, because it’s not just about writing down what you’ve seen and felt, but rather to inform, to tell him about things that are hidden sometimes deliberately, from the general public. 

Six keys to good investigative journalism

1/ A good question

At the root of good investigating is a subsidiary question. Most of the time it’s the side question any curious observer will ask himself once he’s gotten the answer to his major questions, but that he daren’t broach for fear of what he’ll uncover. Oftentimes it’s the “why” or the “how”, which you guess, but can’t quite find beyond appearances.

Imagine I’ve already got all the answers to the questions I had about Caesar’s landing in Great Britain. I’ve got enough to publish a fool report on his legions, his allies, his strategies, his battle plan, his ulterior motives… My exclusive report in Great Britain will be the cherry on top of the cake. I’m happy with myself… but I still wonder… how the hell does Caesar manage to fund such expensive campaigns? But it’s such a loaded question…Where does that money come from? Is it his? His family’s? Does he have loaners? Has he amassed a true treasure over the years? I wonder… but I can’t answer those questions. Too many obstacles.

2/ A first thread

The investigative journalist treads in the shadows of the news, such as the historian works in the shadows of History. To find his first thread, he uses the same method: he reads up on the topic he’s interested in, gets familiarized with the protagonist, reads all about them, writes up a list of known and potential witnesses, writes down key dates and moments of their private & public life, writes an inventory of the questions yet unanswered… in a word he constructs a canvass of the mystery to solve.

In Caesar’s case, it appears that ever since he became a politician, the Roman proconsul in Gaul has been favored by a sponsor, “the great Pompey”, Roman proconsul in Spain, and his campaigns have been funded by a wealthy patrician, Marcus Crassus.

Here lays your first entry point: you need to learn about the state of Crassus’s wealth, his links to Caesar, and to get his friends to talk about his funding the proconsul’s campaigns.

3/ Spinning the web

When the journalist becomes an historian of the present, he needs time to understand his story, define and cover it. He has to take this time, it must be given to him. He works slowly, deliberately, going from one strong point to another.

In Rome, men as powerful as Crassus and Pompey necessarily have rivals and foes. Such witnesses surely have things to say about Caesar’s funds. I find them in the electoral annals, write up their contact list and learn about them to “tame” them. I plan my first meetings with them, because they’ll speak more easily than Crassus’s men.

The historian journalist stats spinning his web on the outskirts of his story, to get closer and closer to the major questions.

4/ A picture to paint

Any campaign to get interviews brings other leads.

Put at ease by my professionalism, my first witnesses drop other names. If Crassus has helped Caesar (with his own ulterior motives), the proconsul also has pillaged Gaul. He’s left so many victims that I have no trouble getting them to talk. They tell me about the plunder. Every Roman victory contributes to the slave market, taxed by Caesar for his own profit. Slave traders give me details. Data starts piling up.

Then comes the time when the investigative journalist must sort out, untangle and smooth out the data he’s got while spinning around his story. He checks the figures, piles up documents, fact-checks the testimonies and defines a timeline.

5/ The spider’s strategy

When his prey seems to be encircled, the investigative journalists attacks frontally, with no hesitation, because he feels he can afford to. He needs to close his investigation by asking the target to explain what he’s uncovered. It’s one of his deontological duties: if he publishes anything about someone, that person must be given the right to explain himself or herself. But you don’t catch flies with vinegar…

So I’m asking Caesar to grant me a meeting. I write a letter, in amiable and measured words, to have written proof that I’m impartial. I remain vague on my true motives so as not to scare him. If he agrees to meet me I will integrate his answers to my story. If he refuses, I’ll write it as well so that my readers know I acted in good faith.

The investigative journalist closes his work in full transparency, because he respects the truth and his readers.

6/ Irrefutable rationale

Any well-conducted investigation is easy to write down. Facts, testimonies and proofs link up in logical order, just as is the case for a mathematical demonstration.

For the copy to feel alive, you can write down things you’ve seen and heard, but they’re no more than embellishments. Move aside anything that can distract from the main reasoning. Value judgments are useless- except, sometimes, as a conclusion or an editorial- the facts speak for themselves.

Your rationale must be coldly rigorous and must justify your headline and closing sentence. Headline: “The greedy side of Caesar”. Closing sentence: “Auri sacra fames!” “Accursed hunger for gold”, as Virgil writes in the Aeneid”…

Investigations conducted by more than one journalist must be properly organized

Some investigations necessitate the contribution of more than one journalist. A single one, as competent as he is, is sometimes not enough to pull all threads. Collaborative investigations therefore are the answers. In the case of our particular example, “The greedy side of Caesar”, you can picture three specialized journalists (politics, financial scandals, & military experts) and a generalist for things seen and heard on the field. To make sure everyone dances to the same tune, you need to name a conductor.

There are limits to every investigations

Sometimes success depends on the journalist’s ability to uncover hidden truth. Acting in the general public’s best interest allows you to use tricks. But don’t mix that up with personal hunger for revenge. The honesty of investigative works explains stating down the journalist’s motive. You don’t investigate because it’s satisfying, rather because people have a right to the truth. You’re neither a cop nor a judge. Don’t be disloyal.