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The changing realities of working in investigative journalism

A core editor from OCCRP, a leading global investigative network, shares his views on how the field is evolving

OCCRP core editor Brian Fitzpatrick became a mentor for young journalists trying to enter the industry in a project run by the Media Development Foundation. 

As a member of one of the biggest networks of investigative journalists in the world, Brian shared his ideas and advice for aspiring investigators.

This interview was condensed and edited.

Why have you chosen to work in the sphere of investigative journalism?

I don’t really think I decided off the bat that I would do investigative or semi-investigative reporting. It kind of just evolved organically. The topics I was interested in, such as human rights issues, para-militarism, organized crime, led themselves to investigative work. 

It was impossible to get too far into these topics without first doing a lot of fieldwork, and then, in a second phase, a fair bit of extra digging that would go beyond day-to-day reporting.

BRIAN FITZPATRICK

What do you mean by “semi-investigative” journalism? How does it differ from full-scale investigative reporting?

There are layers to everything. What I would call semi-investigative would have fewer components than a fully-fledged investigation, that might take years to do. 

While a semi-investigative project might involve exhausting sources, court documentation, hunting down a lot of materials that would never be visible if you hadn’t gone and found it, it’s still not quite at the level of super-in-depth investigation type work that some of my colleagues at OCCRP would do.

How different is it to be an investigative journalist now vs. in previous years?

In the pre-Internet days, you might have to go and physically dig out stuff yourself. You were very limited in terms of the scope of what you could do — at least at the touch of a button. 

Now we can see the amazing work that reporters do with open-source-type investigations, using a compilation of databases and things like online leaks and online whistle-blowers. A lot of that has to do with technology that has made things easier.

Do you use any platforms, tools, databases that are not within OCCRP to help with your investigations? Maybe you could share some tips? 

Within OCCRP (and for the use of our wider network), we have a lot of resources and forensic tools at our disposal, including research and data teams who help reporters make the absolute most out of the leads that they are pursuing. 

After all, when dealing with cross-border projects, not all reporters can ever hope to be experts in extracting information from multiple countries at one time. 

Beyond our internal tools, the investigations rely on things like well-placed sources, whistle-blowers, anonymous tip-offs, open-source intelligence crawling, flight and cargo tracking. It can be any number of avenues, really – from technical ones, like using satellite imagery to map environmental damage, to simple in-person elements, such as a meeting with a source.

What are the necessary skills journalists should have to work on investigative projects?

As much as anything else, tenacity is a skill that gets reporters a long way when working on investigative projects. Besides the more obvious skills when it comes to unearthing hidden facts – like finding and deciphering sensitive documentation, relying on sources, following money trails. etc. – the ability to doggedly stay with a story, even when it hits numerous roadblocks along the way, is very important. 

Often as an editor, you’ll notice that investigative reporters have this built-in mindset that doesn’t let them take no for an answer. I would say project management skills, and an ability to organize workflows in efficient ways are also big assets because the work often involves complex topics, examined over very long periods.

As to sources, there’s no real secret when dealing with them. The best way to ensure that you have long-standing relationships with them is to be upfront and honest. You should give a sense that the work that you do daily or for longer-term projects is honest and is being done for the right reasons – exposing the truth. You need to be honest with them, courteous, and be in no way underhanded and let your work speak for itself.

People aren’t stupid. If they think you have done something sneaky with somebody else, they’re not going to trust you. There always will be a certain number of sources who will be disappointed, but this can’t affect you, it’s not your concern to keep them happy. 

For example, you might speak to 20 people for a story, but only quote three or four, and then some others might think, well, why didn’t you use the information I gave you? But the truth is that you have used a lot of that information, but just in other ways that they might not be fully aware of.

What do you do with the information you obtain from sources, whistle-blowers?

You always need to try to double-check and triple-check it, but the information that you’re given sometimes doesn’t lend itself to an easy double-check or triple-check. For example, if you get a trove of documents from a whistle-blower, you might be able to check the story behind that whistle-blower and where they work, or their industry, etc., and see if you can cross-reference this information with material that has emanated from a similar source in the past. 

This will help you to see if their story lines up with real-world events – critical info that lets you piece together a fuller picture in terms of what they are showing you. But there may not always be iron-clad, multiple ways to check the actual documentation or story that you receive. Sometimes these things require trust and intuition, but you should prepare yourself as much as humanly possible, by using the full toolkit of investigative reporting resources at your disposal.

What is this line between befriending a source and trusting the source?

I think you can maintain very courteous and friendly relations with sources, but without getting to the point where they would rely on you, or you would rely on them, or where you would create financial (dependence) or anything of a similar nature. 

For me it’s a very slippery slope and something to be avoided. You never pay anyone for any information. No, no, no. It is something that changes the dynamic (between reporter and source) as soon as anything is paid for.

Can you explain the mission of OCCRP?

Our motto is “it takes a network to fight a network.” Basically that means providing a network of investigative reporters from independent partnered media groups around the world with the tools and resources to undertake broader sets of investigations. 

Some of our main tools in this regard are things like our Aleph and ID platforms, which are internal systems that let reporters scour and cross-reference records globally. In this regard, our data team goes to incredible lengths to assist reporters in the field every day, and our tech teams do fantastic work to ensure they can work safely and efficiently.    

How do you decide on topics?

Many we decide in-house by building off the constant, ongoing work by our network of reporters, both internal and at our partner centres. We have launched a series of longer-term projects on under-explored topics like, to use a very recent example, an investigation into the tobacco giant China Tobacco, which was a five-continent effort with several external media partners. 

Many ideas are also pitched to us from freelance reporters and media groups looking to collaborate, and many leads come from avenues such as whistle-blowers. Many projects, depending on complexity, can take a long time to come to fruition. We have a rigorous pitching process, at which new ideas are reviewed by editorial staff and management.

Is it safer to work in a bigger network like OCCRP for those who are investigating sensitive and dangerous topics? Do you have any safety tips for journalists?

It makes it safer for a journalist to have a group committed to proper journalism standing behind them. As to tips, oftentimes when you’re dealing with sensitive subjects and people who might be quite dangerous, the goal for us would always be to never make that final approach to the person you are investigating, until you know the answer to every possible question before you have asked it. 

You would need to know the topic that you are investigating inside out, and avoid approaching topics or the targets of your investigations with an incomplete picture. So it’s like a model that involves kind of ever-diminishing circles, where you start with as big a picture as possible, and you get narrower and narrower and narrower to the point that when you get to the end of the investigation you don’t go into it unprepared. You should know the answer to every question already.

The other thing is you should be aware of the environment. This is something that I’ve learned a lot, especially in Latin America – to be aware of the environment in which you’re operating in and the people that you deal with there. You need to be careful about who you are dealing with on the ground, and make sure that your sources are protected too.

What trends in media do you see in the realm of investigations? Data visualization? Multimedia collaborative platforms? If yes can you give some examples of that?

When it comes to media collaborations, the past number of years have been something of a boom time for these efforts. We’ve seen huge investigative projects like the Panama Papers, which OCCRP was a part of before my time here, have a great impact. 

To give a more recent example, at OCCRP our reporters have also been part of the team of international outlets who pooled resources to continue the work of murdered Maltese reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia. At a more national level, one novel idea that often springs to mind is students, teachers and media groups in Canada teaming up to examine the impacts of the oil and gas industry in that country.

At OCCRP we also recently launched our OpenLux project with several global partners. This involved a huge analysis of Luxembourg’s corporate registry, focused on ultimate beneficial owners, or UBOs. 

Banding resources together helped our network of reporters to sift through large amounts of data to produce a project with real impact — something that would have been impossible without cross-border collaboration. Of course, then there are smaller-scale collaborations occurring all the time, as more and more groups realize the benefits of this model.

Unfortunately, this is an era where many media groups have fewer resources at their disposal, so joining forces — and using resources provided by groups like OCCRP — to offset these challenges can see great results. In terms of data visualization, the pandemic offered a unique set of opportunities for media groups to bring big chunks of data to life for readers and the public good. 

OCCRP, for example, launched a large project on COVID-19 procurement, examining where vast sums of money went as countries spent billions on supplies (not always with great transparency).

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Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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