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The Essential Elements of Powerful Global Investigative Reporting

What makes a good investigation? How should an investigative reporter select stories? Here are the three criteria we apply to every investigation.

The biggest decision, and arguably the most important decision, an international investigative journalism group like the ICIJ can take is choosing an issue to investigate.

Therefore we apply three criteria to every idea we consider:

* Is it an issue of global concern?

* Is the system designed to protect people broken?

* Are we likely to get a result? 

Good ideas provide good outcomes, so organizations like ours need to choose issues that genuinely affect peoples’ lives, that preferably prompt a running series of on-going stories and which prompt change.

There is little point, for instance, in writing about an issue that is confined to one city in one country without exploring the potential effect on others.

We also find that the best stories arise from exposing the failings of governments or public or private organizations – based on the public’s reasonable expectations of such bodies or organizations.

And there is a certain impotency in highlighting a problem without forcing a change of legislation, a government inquiry, or follow-up stories from other media that help right the wrong that has been highlighted.

If you look at any successful investigation, such as the horrors of thalidomide which ICIJ member Phillip Knightley helped expose, you will see that it contained all three elements I have outlined.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s mothers in more than 46 countries who had taken thalidomide, a drug to prevent morning sickness, gave birth to babies with shocking deformities.

The most common were shortened limbs, in which the hand emerged direct from the shoulder and the foot direct from the hip. Babies also had internal injuries that required repeated operations to put right.

Some appeared healthy but were deaf or blind or developed early signs of autism or epilepsy. More than 10,000 children were affected.

The Sunday Times campaign that Knightley was part of forced the distributors of the drug in the UK to compensate victims  and the general exposure prompted governments to tighten drug testing systems.

It’s clear that thalidomide was an issue of genuine concern, that mothers could have reasonably expected those who marketed the drug to act sooner and that good journalism prompted change for the better.

A strong investigative story will always bring in leads about other potential investigations and ICIJ is in a position to receive those leads.

We are fortunate to have a number of great philanthropic foundations behind us and we are fortunate to have some of the biggest and best names in journalism as members.

But we also have challenges. Chuck Lewis and Bill Kovach  were ahead of their time when they founded the ICIJ in 1997 out of concern for the erosion of investigative journalism in the traditional media. Times were bad then, but they are much worse now. 

The only thing that hasn’t changed is that the biggest decisions we take will continue to be to choose the right stories.

And that’s where you as a member of the public can help. Whistleblowers are often an essential element of good investigative reporting.

The thalidomide scandal may have taken longer to expose if not for the help of the brave people who suffered through the affair. Journalists rely on members of the public – not always experts – to point out wrongs that need to be righted.

It is a two-way commitment. In return for information, a good journalist guarantees anonymity and protects his or her sources as far as humanly possible – if that is required. The ICIJ gives that commitment. 

If you have a story that needs to be exposed, and you think it might meet our criteria, help us to expose it.

Contact us either through our “Leak to Us” section or at

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ICIJ is dedicated to ensuring all reports we publish are accurate. If you believe you have found an inaccuracy let us know.