Business Politics & Society

How to Be an Investigative Journalist

Authored by Bob Woodward

Investigative Journalist

As a journalist, your duty is to uncover the best obtainable version of the truth through evidence, sources, and testimony. This process is broken down by a man who’s considered one of the greatest journalists of our time, Bob Woodward.

Part 1 of 10

Write about the political, but don’t act political

Focus on facts, not opinions—opinions belong in an op-ed column. Bleach your personal and political opinions out of your stories. If a journalist appears biased, readers might consider it a crusade or fake news and dismiss your writing.

Part 2 of 10

Report from the beginning

Investigative journalism takes time. It’s a lengthy process of gathering documents and interviews, so keep your reporting incremental. Update your editor about your status on the story and, when possible, publish bits of your investigation as it develops. People want the story as it’s rising, not setting—by that point, the story is over and it’s no longer news, it’s history.

Part 3 of 10

Documentation is key

In this age of fake news, the most important thing to have is documentation. Documents are often classified or private, so they’re difficult to get. You have to ask for them—sometimes aggressively. Organize, save, and make copies of everything.

Did you know?

Obtaining documents goes hand in hand with talking to human sources, because you need someone to give you those documents.

Part 4 of 10

Find sources who are witnesses and participants

Make a list of people to interview who are actively involved in your story and might know the truth. Then start at the bottom—the higher up you go on the chain of command, the more likely people are to conceal things.

Part 5 of 10

Always protect your sources

Meet where they’re comfortable—at their home or office, or in parks. Use throwaway cell phones and encrypted email. Never reveal your source except to maybe one editor.

Did you know?

There are three types of sources. On-the-record sources are upfront and named. Background sources are not named but can be quoted. Deep background sources won’t be quoted, but you can use their general information.

Part 6 of 10

Start interviews by establishing ground rules and being completely transparent

Let the source know if the conversation will be on the record or not. Tell the truth about who you are and if you’re going to record the conversation, and do so openly and with verbal permission that’s on tape.

Part 7 of 10

Be upfront and civil during your interview

Ask relevant questions in a chronological order, sticking to the main truths you want to uncover. Don’t argue or lose your cool. No one ever tells the full story—it’s often a mixture of truth and untruth, and it’s your job to verify.

Did you know?

If confronted with a lie, say, “There’s contrary information.” Don’t say, “You’re lying” or “That’s untrue.” Be factual and objective.

Part 8 of 10

Pivot your story if something substantially different develops

Time and circumstances might change the subject of your story, like when Bob Woodward’s in-progress piece about George W. Bush’s legacy was made obsolete after the events of 9/11. Similarly, if you cannot find the evidence for what you’re writing about, let it go.

Part 9 of 10

Fact-check everything within an inch of your life

This includes names, dates, addresses, spelling, and quotes.

Part 10 of 10

Never gloat when your work causes change

You can feel good about the journalistic role you played, but it’s ill-becoming to openly gloat once the truth you’ve uncovered results in something like a resignation or verdict.

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