Investigative journalism is the one area of journalism that has the potential to make the biggest name for a journalist. The biggest stories in any newspaper are usually the result of some level of investigative journalism, making it a skill that every journalist should master.
- Keep your ears open. The first and most important step in investigative journalism is simply to keep your ears open--always. Many investigative pieces that I worked on as a reporter came about by hearing or noticing something and then doing follow-up research. It may be something you hear at a meeting that doesn't sound quite right. One example of this is a school board meeting I attended in which the bad condition of a local school was brought up. I cornered some teachers from the school after the meeting and ended up with one of the biggest stories of the year. It may also be something small that you notice that can be followed up on. Once you get in the habit of always listening, train yourself to never turn it off, not even in social situations. Sometimes chatter that you overhear at a party will lead to uncovering information for a story.
- Follow up. Getting that first lead on a story is just the beginning. Once you know what the story will be about, you must follow up with as many sources as you can. This may require searching courthouse records, interviewing people who are in a position to know about the information, or even asking the first source for a direction to go in. A story with only one source is considered suspect, and a managing editor may not allow it to be run unless it is verified in some way. Your research should prove that the information is accurate.
- Discover what your source wants. If the first lead is a source who is giving you information, you will need to know what the source wants from you and from the story. A source who knowingly talks to a reporter, especially in an investigative capacity, usually wants something. It could be as altruistic as a change in a corrupt system, or as self-serving as the opportunity to get back at his boss. Make sure you understand your source's motive before getting involved or you could end up with a story in which you have deliberately been given misleading facts. This is likely in stories motivated by revenge.
- Decide on attribution. In an investigative piece, you may have to decide what kind of attribution you should give your source or sources. If the source wants to remain anonymous, you will likely have to clear that with your editor. Some newspapers have a policy against anonymous sources, and some require that you print a reason for the anonymity. If the story is not of a terribly sensitive nature, an anonymous source may force you to question that person's integrity as well.