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‘Be annoying, and don’t give up’

Bill Birnbauer shares the methodology and techniques which have served him best as an investigative journalist.

Bill Birnbauer, Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Monash University in Australia, shares the methodology and techniques which have served him best as an investigative journalist. He recently spoke with ICIJ for our “Secrets of the Masters” series.

What are the most important tools of the trade that you, as an instructor, pass on?

The most important tool for investigative reporters is their attitude. They should:Be unsatisfied.

  • Be strategic.
  • Be proactive.
  • Be open-minded.
  • Keep digging.

Young and aspiring reporters need to understand that Google is good but isn’t the only thing. Reporters need to know how to find, search and download from databases and conduct cross-checks using a variety of search and information tools. I emphasize the need to go beyond the obvious searches: once Google is done, there are court databases, corporate searches, disbarred director searches, Hansard, municipal council minutes, archives, news files and more to hunt through.

Reporters should have done enough research to have a good idea or an intuitive feel for what a person will answer before asking questions in an interview. Like Google, interviews are not everything. The searches mentioned above can be used to contact and locate friends and enemies of the person, group or company under scrutiny.

What are the dynamics of conducting cross-border investigations? How to pull off such projects successfully?

The most important element of such investigations is communication. This sounds simple but can never be taken for granted. What does it mean? It means having a central editor who:

  • is across the information reporters in various countries are chasing,
  • knows who the reporters are about to approach and when that approach will occur, and
  • understands both the big picture story as well as the details of each reporters’ story.

Immersion editing is needed in cross-country investigations because what a reporter does in one country may well tip off or chill a target or source in another country.
At the same time, reporters need to be in regular contact with the editor and each other. They need to put aside traditional competitive testosterone that has served them and their organizations so well and be open and communicative with their colleagues.

Share with us a recent story or investigation that you pursued and the impact it had.

I am currently working with several former investigative journalism students on stories that will update the Dangerous Ground website created by an earlier group of students. At Monash University where I teach, students do one investigation over a 12-week period and an option is to scrutinize the performance of the state Environment Protection Authority’s treatment of toxic sites. A smaller group under my supervision then takes the best assignments and augments them with video, additional stories, fact checking, DocumentCloud and so on for the website. Currently we are looking at the waste discharges of more than 300 companies and local government agencies, using mainly Excel and data from the EPA’s database. I expect the stories from this will be picked up in local media shortly.

What is the path that led you to investigative journalism in the first place?

Hardly a deliberate strategy, it more or less happened as a progression from beat reporting, senior managerial news desk roles and a love of the hunt. I would say I was an investigative reporter a lot of the time when I was covering a beat or working as a feature writer: I covered health, politics, city affairs, science, the environment and wrote many features with the same attitude I had as an investigative reporter. What I didn’t have was the most precious commodity of all – time.

What methods, techniques, and tools have served you best as an investigative journalist? Please illustrate with an example.

  • I often create three or more files:
    1. Transcripts
    2. Contacts, sources, stakeholders
    3. To do and get
    4. Story draft. Sometimes I write draft paragraphs while still researching.
  • I generally audio record everything and do my own transcribing because it is easy to miss things the first time and you can listen for hesitations that may signify lies. Often what seems irrelevant at the time of recording later becomes significant.
  • I collect as many documents from as many places as possible using Freedom of Information, annual reports, transcripts, court records, emails, reports etc. They are all parts of a jigsaw.
    I like building a detailed chronology.
  • Establishing who are the friends and enemies of the person/ group under investigation is crucial: friends may convince them to talk to you or give you some information; enemies have their own motivations. Knowing who both are and differentiating them makes it possible to play one off against the other.

How has the increasing importance of digital and online media (especially the immediacy factor they emphasize) impacted the quality and practice of investigative journalism?

This depends on the financial health of the organization concerned and its ability to afford investigative teams, and the attitude of the editor. Digital and online are a bonanza for investigative reporters wanting to make their stories more accessible and wanting to reach different audiences or trawl databases. Use of interactive graphics, video, animation, links etc. have boosted the quality of investigations. The flip side, unfortunately, is that online has trashed the business model that has paid for quality journalism.

Do you employ a lot of data-based methods in your investigative reporting? If yes, what kinds of data do you use and how?
As mentioned above, I’m currently using a local EPA database to crunch the waste discharge records of over 300 companies into a spreadsheet. I confess I’m an older-style reporter interested in the bottom line of such crunches rather than doing it myself.

Talk about your approach to stories. Is there anything unusual about the way you conduct your research or choose your themes?
With complex long-term investigations or documentaries, I try to be strategic and release information on a need-to-know basis. It’s a bit like planning a military campaign with multiple scenarios and an emphasis on the timing of interviews and contacts.

What do you consider some of the most important lessons you have learned over the years?
Look at what people do; not what they say.

What are the key elements that make an investigative story truly “click”? What do they have to have and what should they not be missing?
This can be a mystery at times. I’ve written stories that have fallen into a deep, dark hole of silence when published. I still think they were good stories, but they must have been missing that ‘X factor’. I’d say they need luck and timing to have an impact. They also need follow up stories that are more than reaction pieces and they need a champion (a credible politician, organization or academic) calling for action. Releasing the project through several media can be a fraught exercise but if the trust is there, then the impact is multiplied many-fold.

What is the biggest single threat to your investigative reporting and what advice can you give to others who might be facing the same obstacle?
Lack of time. Advice: be annoying and don’t give up.

What tips would you give young, emerging, investigative reporters?
See above.

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