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It may be the number one question local journalists hear – ‘why don’t you do any investigative journalism?’
And as the number one media house in Barbados, the Nation’s journalists hear it even more than most.
The answer is a bit more complex than the cut and dried question. Let’s delve into it, starting with a little background on investigative journalism.
First, a working definition from UNESCO’s investigative journalism handbook, Story Based Inquiry:
“Investigative journalism involves exposing to the public matters that are concealed–either deliberately by someone in a position of power, or accidentally, behind a chaotic mass of facts and circumstances that obscure understanding. It requires using both secret and open sources and documents.”
Second, a definition on what it’s not, coming from David Kaplan. Kaplan is a highly respected investigative journalist, former director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and founder of the Global Investigative Journalism Network.
“Investigative journalism should not be confused with what has been dubbed “leak journalism”–quick-hit scoops gained by the leaking of documents or tips, typically by those in political power.”
Third – a little myth busting. There are a host of romantic myths around investigative journalism. They are fed by movies like All the President’s Men which condensed the Washington Post’s years-long Watergate investigation into 138 minutes and Spotlight which needed just 129 minutes to depict the five months of investigation Boston Globe’s team did before publishing their first story on child abuse in the Catholic church.
It’s rarely glamorous or exciting. Investigative journalism involves following up a hunch or tip about a bigger story with the tedious and exacting research, interviews and examination of records that helps you develop the bigger story.
“I had huge reservations about letting Hollywood fictionalise our lives. We talk on the phone, we do data entry, we look at court records. Good luck making that interesting!” said Sacha Pfeiffer, one of the Boston Globe journalists who was depicted in the Spotlight movie.
It’s hardly ever the work of one crusading hero reporter. Cooperation makes it happen and because investigative journalism needs to be so thorough and has so many elements, it is often done by teams of reporters. For example, the Globe’s Spotlight team which eventually won a Pulitzer for their work, was made up of six people.
It’s not always clear what the story is. Journalism is full of trial and error. Not every hunch turns out to be true. Sometimes what seems like a minor story is actually the tip of the iceberg while sometimes what feels like a big story actually isn’t that news worthy once you probe into it. There are instances where it is a big story and despite how you probe and probe, there isn’t enough evidence to pull it all together.
Nearly a decade before a British property developer ended up before the courts in the United Kingdom, charged with fraud over the sale of supposed resort properties here and in other Caribbean islands, I had been working on the story- sort of.
I had been tipped off by a British journalist who had a hunch something was awry and was trying to find out more about the developer’s plans in Barbados and called our newsroom. At the time, there wasn’t much to go on but over the course of months I tried several times. I checked out the property which was then just an open lot. I spoke to the residents in the surrounding area, who had heard nothing of it. I perused the website promoting the planned luxury development. I spoke with knowledgeable sources in the construction industry, who had heard of the plans but had no inkling then that anything was amiss. I scoured the British press for reports of any infelicities by the developer. Called and spoke again with my source. There was just not enough that had been done –or rather not done at that time to build a substantive story. All that came out of it was a story which revealed that the resort website –and many others besides had advertised their properties as having private beaches in Barbados. It took another six years before the UK’s fraud office began their investigation and four more years before charges came.
This is the frustrating and slippery nature of investigative journalism. But this is only the first part of my answer. In the next Inside Editorial blog, I will look at stories by Nation journalists that though they may not have been labelled investigative journalism, certainly deserved the tag.