Investigative journalists' skills can empower people

You have to be bold and courageous as an investigative journalist. But, before that, you have to be meticulous and get your facts right, and don’t rush in too quickly. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

You have to be bold and courageous as an investigative journalist. But, before that, you have to be meticulous and get your facts right, and don’t rush in too quickly. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)


Do you know your Tegetas from your Trillians, your Oakbays from your Glencores or your Shivas?

These companies have been in the weekly newspapers for about five years, but now they are making headlines in the public protector’s state capture report. The issue of state capture has been exposed week after week, remorselessly, relentlessly, exhausting you in the process with the details.

So it’s accurate, in a way, to say the public protector’s job was made easier by the investigative journalism that complemented her work. But it’s also a fact that investigative journalism was made easier by the astonishing corruption, akin to a slightly ajar geni bottle, since President Jacob Zuma took the helm of leadership.

Obtaining the evidence of Gupta-Zuma patronage, and through legal means, and then corroboration, followed by persuading sources to talk on the record, and then triple-checking facts, is not child’s play.
Ask the Mail & Guardian journalists and the amaBhungane, City Press and Sunday Times investigators who have had more leads than they have had the resources to follow over the past five years.

You have to be bold and courageous as an investigative journalist. But, before that, you have to be meticulous and get your facts right, and don’t rush in too quickly. So it’s a somewhat delicate see-saw. You wait too long and your competitors get the story; you go too quickly and you may have used a source who was manipulating you with false facts to further his or her political agenda.

At this week’s Wits Journalism’s African Investigative Journalism conference at the University of the Witswatersrand, journalists from all over the continent converged to share their skills. The participants heard that they should be sharing them with the public.

It is important to go back to the basics – checking facts, not simply rushing to be first with the story; double-checking, then triple-checking, before you publish. Otherwise your outfit and your brand will be tarnished – besides the more important fact of possibly ruining someone else’s life. Remember that false story in 2009 about interim president Kgalema Motlanthe – when a young woman made the claim that she was carrying his child and then later retracted it?

Of equal importance to triple-checking facts is that journalists need to share their skills with the citizenry – workers, students, academics, hairdressers, everyone. This is particularly pertinent now: this year, at the United Nations, South Africa voted with China, Saudi Arabia and Russia against the freedom of the internet and free expression. If clampdowns are imminent then citizens need to know how to exercise their rights to know.

One of the failings of investigative journalists, Nechama Brodie told her breakaway session at the conference, is that journalists don’t cite their sources sufficiently. In academe, writers cite and recite. It seems that in investigative pieces journalists often use information but are often shy to cite enough.

Citations are like footnotes – which can be removed by an editor – but at least you have a record of the exact words used. It’s akin to a forensic trail of where your information came from.

Journalists should verify their content. If someone is tweeting and that’s your source – oops! You should be careful because the tweeter might just be pretending to be on the scene, while he or she is drinking coffee in a café and using others’ tweets. And those others may be exaggerating for the love of drama.

The conference also reminded journalists that they are Jacks and Jills of all trades and masters and mistresses of none. They are not experts – they may be experts at investigating but they are not expert tax accountants, or doctors or lawyers. They do need to turn to experts often and ask questions: Does this sound right, does this look right? Could I have missed something?

Other questions journalists ask, or, if they don’t, they should ask: Is this ethical, appropriate, really in the public interest? I have two sides of a story, shallow binary oppositions, but should I not have 10 sides?

Once I was at a conference in the Czech Republic where my paper was on the Lady Justice cartoon by Zapiro. I was the only participant from Africa, surrounded by Europeans with their 100-year-old democracies. A Swiss academic whispered to me during tea break: what you guys break in investigative stories in South Africa, we could never come anywhere close to that. In my country, the journalists drink with and get freebees from business and politicians, she said. There’s an all-boy, old boys network there, apparently.

Then this year I heard that Sweden does not have nearly half as many satirists as South Africa does. Not even close. No equivalent to Zapiro there.

Last but not least I am bemused by so many “email stories” about Hillary Clinton, but no United States journalist can tell us what’s in them, and why they are relevant.

This gives us an idea of how much better off we are than many developed countries. Following the investigative conference’s advice, here’s some sharing of strategies for access to information I learnt from when I was advocacy co-ordinator at amaBhungane.

What investigative journalists do to get the story:

  • Research, research, research. Check, double-check, then triple-check;
  • Gather relevant documents (forensic reports, letters, affidavits, emails, internal reports) from courts, companies, government and individual sources;
  • Do stakeouts. For example, everyone is now looking for a shebeen in Saxonwold, but how hard are they looking? Have they done stakeouts, sitting in those beautiful jacaranda trees every night, and watching and waiting;
  • Connecting the dots, following the money and doing the analysis;
  • Making your sources trust you – you have to be reliable and trustworthy;
  • Getting your sources to talk on the record, then protecting your sources;
  • Investigating your sources: What’s their agenda? They should put documents online in the name of transparency. This is beginning to happen more and more;
  • Sometimes you have to explain to sources that their best bet at safety is by making the truth public. But you have to let them decide if that is the route they want to take. In other words, don’t force people to reveal their information; and
  • Speak to as many people as you can to corroborate information.

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