Writing Glossary

What is Investigative Journalism? (What Makes it Different)

March 20, 2023 by

This is a guide covering everything you need to know about investigative journalism.

We’ll be covering the following topics (click on a bullet point to jump to that section):

Table of Contents

What is Investigative Journalism?

Investigative journalism is defined as the unveiling of matters that are concealed either deliberately by someone in a position of power, or accidentally, behind a chaotic mass of facts and circumstances — and the analysis and exposure of all relevant facts to the public.

From this definition, we can deduce that investigative journalism is about revealing facts that are either hidden by people in power or that these facts need to be brought into the open in such a way that the public can benefit from it through informed decision-making.

The old adage that the pen is mightier than the sword does ring true in the case of investigative journalism when excesses of wealth, corruption, or power are exposed so that the public’s mandate or interest is protected.

Investigative journalism is that kind of journalism that brings accountability to bear on the corrupt politicians, sleazy businessmen, and greedy corporations.

Unlike any other kind of journalist, investigative journalists go to great lengths to uncover stories of corruption, fraud, or other misconduct and wrongdoings.

The stories are produced after thoroughly researching each and every facet of the issue.

David E. Kaplan, an investigative reporter, and currently, the Executive Director at the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), defines investigative journalism as

“The in-depth, systematic use of original research and reporting.” – David E. Kaplan

Kaplan further adds that investigative journalism requires thorough research of publicly available or leaked documents and data.

Usually, investigative journalism stories uncover damning evidence that can incriminate people who abuse power. Investigative journalists do such in-depth reporting for the sake of the public good, and in the process, often do put themselves in risky situations.

investigative journalism

What Does Investigative Journalism Do?

Investigative journalism is also sometimes called accountability journalism.

Policies made behind closed doors in high offices affect the layman on the street, and if the same policies are made to benefit the people in power over the poor then it is the job of investigative journalism to lay bare the details of shady deals and corruption.

A saying that comes up often in the literature about financial fraud is, “follow the money.”

Investigative journalists tipped (a journalism term meaning receiving secret information) on a story will not merely stop at the information provided by the source (the person relaying the information to the reporter).

They will dig deeper and deeper until the whole story has been unearthed.

For example, investigative journalists covering a financial scandal will dive deep into research and follow the trails of money, documents, and data until what they arrive at becomes a bigger story than the initial tip that egged them on the trail in the beginning.

follow the money

Mostly, investigative journalists follow stories that have a social and economic impact on the masses.

It is for this reason that investigative journalism stories are often known as ‘accountability projects’ or ‘accountability journalism.’

Lastly, it needs to be pointed out that in order to serve the greater public good, investigative journalists do obtain and gather information in certain manners that might, under normal conditions, be called criminal, like hacking phones or bribing someone to get classified documents.

At the same time, it is also true that journalism isn’t like any other profession, and that journalists enjoy certain immunities that can help them go to greater lengths in uncovering fraud, embezzlement, and corruption at the highest order which is in the interest of the greater public good.

Why is Investigative Journalism Important?

Investigative journalism often deals with stories of social justice and accountability.

The media as an institution is often considered the fourth pillar of the state along with the executive, legislature, and judiciary.

Therefore, media and journalism are regarded with great respect by the public because they play a vital role in keeping power in check. Journalism is essential for a working democracy.

According to the World Economic Forum, the total cost of corruption in the third world is $1.26 trillion.

Imagine if every government and non-government fraud, embezzlement, tax evasion, bribe, or corruption were to be reported and legally dealt with, we would have a better world.

Investigative journalism is important because it serves as a watchdog in society.

Recently, an investigative journalism report tellingly dubbed the Pandora Papers has exposed former prime ministers, military generals, and other politicians and businessmen who have criminally stashed wealth outside of their countries into tax havens and offshore companies.

These, and other such examples of investigative journalism (Panama Papers and Paradise Papers), make clear that investigative journalism is an indispensable profession to the smooth workings of democracy.

Without investigative journalism, there would be little to no way to expose the wrongdoings of the rich and the powerful elite that profit at the expense of the rest.

To further explore the important of investigative journalism, we also recommend this video by David Cay Johnston:

What are the Elements of Investigative Journalism?

The core elements of investigative journalism are as follows:

1. In-depth Research

An investigative journalism story consists of many weeks, months, or even years of research.

It is a result of the staggering efforts of a journalist or a group of journalists where a lot of data and documents are produced and researched.

Every piece of information is double, or even triple-checked against hard facts before arriving at conclusions.

2. Systematic

Dealing with such a staggering amount of data, it is easier to get lost, distracted and overwhelmed.

Investigative journalists move cautiously and systematically through piles of information.

The method investigative journalists use to reach the truth is kind of similar to how a scientist would work.

Investigative journalists, after being tipped off on a piece of information, dive deeper into data, pursue hypotheses, test-out hypotheses as they develop, cross-check information with multiple sources, and finally arrive at certain indelible truths.

3. Exposing the story behind the story

The crucial difference between traditional journalism and investigative journalism is that investigative journalism delves beyond the surface details of a story.

A traditional journalist would be happy to let go of the story once it has been reported.

But, on the other hand, an investigative journalist’s nature of work demands that they get to the story behind the story, which is to say that the story doesn’t end until the most obscure facts are revealed.

4. Conducting interviews and fact-checking

To understand how an investigative journalist would approach a story, let’s take a look at how he/she would go about reporting a common news-worthy occurrence, like a building catching fire.

A traditional journalist would go to the scene, get the facts on what, who, why, where, and how. The next day, you will probably read or hear about it on the media that a mom-and-pop store caught fire.

But an investigative journalist will go deeper than that.

In the search for the ‘real story’, the investigative journalist may find that the owners of the small store were constantly being threatened to evacuate the space by a corporate-like business.

5. Pursuing hypothesis

And then the investigative journalist will start connecting dots, talking to people, conducting interviews, and going through documents to test the validity of the hypothesis that the big business trying to get the space from the store was actually involved in manufacturing the conflagration that razed the store to the ground.

investigative journalism connect dots
connect the dots

How Do You Become an Investigative Journalist?

Investigative journalists usually work freelance or under editors in news organizations. Either way, investigative journalism stories represent a huge service to society by exposing social and economic malpractices.

If you are at a stage where you are switching careers or have yet to decide on one then you should follow the steps below to become an investigative journalist:

1. Get a journalism degree

Before jumping in with both of your feet to test the waters, you should try out a course in journalism or join a degree program.

At a journalism school, you will learn about the basics of journalism, its ethics, and best practices, and later, you can even opt for a specialization in investigative journalism to really hone your investigative muscle.

2. Build a portfolio

Join investigative journalism competitions that are conducted by prestigious investigative journalism organizations, like the Online Journalism Award or the Center for Investigative Reporting.

3. Join a news organization

Become a reporter for a news organization. Pitch stories that you would like to pursue to the management or editorial board.

4. Work under a mentor

Work under a senior investigative reporter to learn the tricks of the trade. Learn what is their modus operandi.

5. Become a habitual researcher

An investigative journalist is also a prolific researcher. Develop your research skills to get to the bottom of the stories, create new angles, and develop hypotheses.

For more information read this article on how to become an investigative journalist and the skills required.

What Makes a Good Investigative Journalist?

Here are a few traits that distinguish good investigative journalists:

1. Analytical and logical reasoning skills

Investigative journalists are kind of like detectives. They are the real-life Sherlock Holmes.

Seeing things analytically and logically can take quite a bit of practice, but once you are trained, you will be connecting dots like the grand-master of deduction, Mr. Sherlock Holmes himself.

2. Research skills

Research is indispensable to the process of investigative journalism. Sometimes, a reporter has to read through tons of documents to cross-check a small piece of information.

Good investigative journalists are patient people because the nature of their work is quite extensive. A single investigative journalism project may take months and sometimes even years to complete.

3. Time Management

It is quite easy to get overwhelmed or lose track of time altogether under the crushing pile of papers. But a good investigative journalist makes it a point to stay systematic throughout the project so as not to mix up anything.

Investigative Journalism Tips

Investigative journalism is about following up on leads and tips in a well-structured and scientific way. It’s not solely the accurate reporting of facts, but it is the interpretation of those facts so that they lead to bigger stories.

Here are a few tips you can follow to investigate stories:

  • Cross-check everything, even your sources
  • Locate and obtain data about the story
  • Start researching (this could mean drowning in a sea of documents)
  • As you research, develop hypotheses and plausible scenarios
  • Test your hypothesis like a detached observer who is ready to discard anything that cannot hold against facts
  • Set up interviews with the players involved in the story
  • While writing an investigative story, most probably, you will be guided by your editor. Listen to their input.
  • And if you are in an investigative team then understand the parameters of your role and avoid overextending. The key is collaboration, not competition.
  • Lastly, after publishing the story, always follow up on any new developments arising out of the story.

To further explore investigative journalism tips and lessons, we also recommend this TED Talk by Carol Marin:

Final Remarks

Investigative journalism is about accountability. It is how the excesses of power and wealth can be checked.

Investigative journalism relies on extensive research and the methodical pursuit of truth, and it entails an iterative process of hypotheses and testing to reach the big story.

For the efficient workings of a thriving democracy, it is essential that journalists pursue their stories independently of outside pressure or manipulation so that they can report on economic and social issues that are of consequence to the public.