What it takes to be a standout investigative journalist

One constant that everyone experiences on a daily basis is reading, viewing or listening to the news. We can learn what’s happening in our communities, across the country and around the world simply by clicking a button. We’re an information-hungry society, and the content is there for the taking. It even follows us around via news alerts that appear on our phones and mobile devices.

While accessing the latest headlines and learning the newest developments is instantaneous today, that wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t so long ago that it was what would be considered “appointment TV.” In the U.S., viewers waited and watched each night as Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather or Peter Jennings brought them in-depth coverage of the day’s events.

In Canada, it was the late Eric Malling who provided deeply researched and hard-hitting investigative reports every week through his presence on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)’s flagship newsmagazine The Fifth Estate, where his stories, interviews and documentaries kept his fellow Canadians in the know.

Investigative journalism was, and is, both an art and a science. For any reporter who practices it, there must be an effective combination of several factors at work. These include a thorough understanding of the medium that’s being used and how to use it in a compelling manner, the ability to sift through volumes of information to get at the salient facts, superb storytelling skills, a personal approach that’s equal parts tenacity and finesse, the ability to ask questions that elicit substantial answers, and a talent for articulating the story to an audience of possibly millions.

Some of this, of course, can be learned at university, but much of the needed skill is gained through experience. For example, the aforementioned Eric Malling was a graduate of both the University of Saskatchewan as well as the School of Journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa. But it was through his experience reporting for the Regina Leader-Post, The Toronto Star and The Washington Post that he learned how to pursue, investigate and communicate compelling stories while establishing his persona.

By the time he made the jump to television at CTV, and later at CBC, he had established himself as not only an expert journalist but a presence whose distinctive style earned him devoted viewers.

For today’s journalists — whether in print, on broadcast or cable news or in the continually expanding online environment — the same challenges exist and the same qualities are needed.

According to writer Caitlynn Lowe, “Curiosity drives the good journalist forward. An individual who watches life passively or apathetically lacks the ability to ask the right questions. A good, thorough journalist constantly asks questions about the world around him and always seeks the full truth behind every story.”

The word “truth” is very important in this context. 

As a journalist, one must fully understand and agree to being honest when reporting the news. This is an awesome responsibility that aspiring scribes, reporters and broadcasters dealing in news need to keep uppermost in their minds on a daily basis. There’s an audience that’s counting on you to present them with facts untainted by opinion, bias or innuendo.

“Journalists must have their audience’s trust in order to succeed,” writes former reporter Dominique Pishotti. Fairness, objectivity and honesty are three factors that need to be built into every story. It is a journalist’s duty to report accurate and reliable information to the public. If a journalist is ever put into a scenario where trust could be compromised, they should step aside.”

One quality all journalists must possess is the ability to spend hours tracking information, talking to sources, relentlessly asking questions, and verifying information prior to reporting the story. 

Melvin Mencher, professor emeritus and longtime teacher at the Columbia School of Journalism and a veteran newspaperman, once wrote, “Track the parking meter dime as it moves through government. Find out what’s done with student activity fees. See who’s getting the bulk of city hall contracts. Are the specifications for cars for the state police written so that only one dealer can successfully bid? You have to be able to read a voucher, a budget, a contract.”

It takes time, of course, to develop and hone these skills. But it’s time well-spent.