1.3. Introduction to investigative journalism with Jakub Simak

Lesson
Materials

The course “Pitching investigative journalism” aims to give you a basic overview of this specific form of journalism, to present it in a nutshell. After comparing differences between traditional daily news reporting and investigative journalism, the video lessons will discuss such topics as how to find an idea for your story, how to start your investigation, organize findings or tell the story to the public. After the course, you should be able to answer yourself if investigative journalism attracts you, bores you, scares you or maybe all of these together. In short: if you want to give it a try or not.

INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM

INTRO

– short bio: investigace.cz, prior experience with AZ, post-Soviet countries

– motto: pitching investigative journalism – its pros, cons, IJ in a nutshell

– what you will learn: basics, is it your cup of tea?

– course structure: several parts, 5-10 minutes long videos, tipsheets with links

– case study: online crooks

– guide: UNESCO toolkit

– motivation: if I can do it, why not you? you need curiosity, motivation and patience…and internet access: tons of material online

 

PART 1: What is IJ and why it matters?

– differences between traditional vs investigative journalism: what IJ is an what is not

– product versus service attitude

– motivation: watchdog, social impact, fixing the system, making enemies…and friends

– legal minefield: how not to get into trouble, objectivity, fact-checking

– growth: professional and personal, invaluable skills

 

PART 2: How to start? Where to find a story or a lead?

– how to start an investigation: where we can find potential ideas for investigative stories

– initial research: do I have new and important information or interpretation?

 

PART 3: Hypothesis and Pitch

– hypothesis: compass that guides you throughout the process

– pitch: get fellow journalists, editors or donors aboard, minimum vs maximum story, calculate risks

 

PART 4: How to Plan and Use Sources

– make a plan: project journalism (+specifics of cross-border collaborations), plan based on pitch, continuous assessment of your investigation 

– investigate: types of sources, building knowledge, contacts and experts, OSINT (geolocation, social media, flight tracking, searching for documents), data analysis (spreadsheets, programming)

– open sources relevant for AZ: (e.g. https://id.occrp.org/databases/, https://data.dictatoralert.org/dictatorship/azerbaijan/)

– organize your findings: sorting out gathered information, connecting the dots, VIS

– what is it you want to tell and does it matter? 90 percent of your research remains untold

 

PART 5: Organise

 

PART 6: Telling the Story

– making the important interesting: how to tell the story in a reader-friendly way

– storytelling structures: main characters, who are victims of “wrongdoing” in the story

– storytelling formats: text vs infographics vs video/explainer vs podcast

– why it matters; why an ordinary citizen should care?

– even criminals have rights: constant reflection of your prejudices, editors´ role

– factcheck: legal implications, gaining versus losing trust

– publication: minimize threats, aim for impact

– follow-up: new developments, sources, leads, other media follow-up, lawsuits

 

PART 7: Where to look further?

– online resources: guides, courses, workshops

– investigative journalism community: conferences, networks, collaborations

– read, read, read: inspiration from abroad

Case Study - Online Crooks: Catch Us If You Can 

In late 2019, the Czech Television approached our newsroom at investigace.cz with a request to dig deeper into the workings of a retail platform Discount Club. This platform offered alleged medical products, which promised to heal anything from varicose veins to deafness. Its marketing aimed at the elderly, the socially vulnerable group, who blindly believed the allegedly miraculous products would help them. This turned out to be a wishful thinking: the overpriced products were fake. 

At the same time, the fraudsters behind the scam were hiding behind fake companies and offshore firms with obscured ownership. As a result, there was no one to be held responsible. Despite thousands of victims and an apparent fraud, the perpetrators remained unknown as the Czech law enforcement and regulatory bodies were unable to untangle the complex international network of companies. I persuaded my editors we could try to do it ourselves.

After initial research, I started digging around a Panama-based company Direct Group that allegedly ran the retail platform Discount Club. In cooperation with a journalist, we came across unofficial information in international databases that a Polish businessman could stand behind the company. This assumption was corroborated by official records from company registries in Panama, Singapore, Malta and Estonia. At that point, I realised the story has a huge cross-border potential and asked a Polish investigative journalist Daniel Flis, who helped with the research, to work with me on the story.

After weeks of digging deeper, we established the scam spanned across four continents and left behind dozens of thousands of victims (in at least ten countries in the EU alone). We decided to uncover the scammers´ operations in Czechia and Poland, compare victims´ experience and scrutinize how official bodies handled the issue. The maximum version of our story was to uncover and describe how the whole system worked internationally.

We started interviewing dozens of victims, experts, state and EU officials, customer rights NGOs, prosecutors and police representatives. In parallel, we tracked down digital traces the fraudsters left behind online through open source intelligence techniques. Putting puzzle pieces together, we identified key companies and their roles, and described how they operated in our countries as well as how the scheme worked starting from advertising to sale, logistics and customer care. As it turned out the global sophisticated scheme was run by a Polish businessman from a small village. After the story was published in Czech, Polish and English in various online and print media it received significant attention from victims, law enforcement and regulatory bodies as well as from the legal team of the perpetrators.

This investigation is a good example of a story that directly calls for cross-border cooperation as the core of the scam was evidently international. Had I worked on it by myself in Czechia, I could describe the misery of the deceived pensioners, local legislative shortcomings and state bodies´ inefficiently - in short, not much else than what the Czech Television and other media already reported about. Turning the story international, the collaboration with Daniel allowed us to have both an eagle-eye perspective (realize how many countries the scam affected, follow the paper trail in foreign company registries, describe the global workings and, most importantly, identify the real perpetrators) as well as comparable national perspectives. As the scammers have operated mostly from Poland, Warsaw-based Daniel had the knowledge, skills and insights to report on such a professional level I could never reach as a Czech with a hired local fixer. In short, this all would not happen had I worked on it by myself.

Our collaboration was in general smooth partly thanks to our prior experience with project-based cross-border journalism: we drafted hypotheses and story outline together, divided workload, set up a timeline. We established communication (weekly and ad-hoc Jitsi calls, Slack for sharing new findings and daily chatting, Google Drive for sharing documents and drafts) and fortified ourselves with patience for sudden changes in deadlines due to work for our respective newsrooms, which have different focus, working culture and audiences.

The biggest challenges we faced were threefold. First, there was a difference between the time we could have dedicated to the project (I could have allocated more hours than my colleague so I had to take a lead both in coordination and drafting). Second, internal communication with editors in our newsrooms was getting complicated as their support for the time-consuming investigation has gradually ebbed away. Third, the form and timing of the investigation´s publication - due to various differences in our newsrooms´ priorities as well upcoming presidential elections in Poland. However, I think we managed to overcome those challenges thanks to our enthusiasm for the project, shared opinions about investigative journalism, and clear and honest communication between us. Importantly, in the end we both agreed the final piece was worth the effort, which is not necessarily always the case (badly planned or executed cross-border investigations can turn into a disaster). The positive feeling thus left the door open for future collaborations with already trusted partners.

The investigation “Online Crooks: Catch Us If You Can” can be accessed in English here.