BIRN Summer School Day 4: Scaling Up Investigations

On the fourth day of BIRN’s Summer School, trainers advised the journalists on how to pitch stories, structure investigative projects and use technology to assist their work.

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The fourth day of BIRN’s Summer School Master Class of Investigative Journalism in the historic town of Konjic in Bosnia and Herzegovina on Thursday started with a session on pitching story ideas, run by Blake Morrison, lead trainer and investigative projects editor at Reuters.

Blake explained how stories can be pitched to editors without overpromising while bearing in mind all the possible outcomes.

“As reporters, you’ll have real highs and real lows, and we have a job to even them up… Sometimes as investigative reporters we dig a dry well and that’s normal. But nevertheless, we aim to have less of them,” he told the participants.

“Sometimes you work on a story that just doesn’t resonate. And that’s why we have to give them ‘legs’, which will make them have an effect,” he added.

Blake explained that journalist should not promise too much from a story and must be realistic, but nevertheless should believe in the most positive outcome, while not pretending it’s possible to predict every possible outcome of their research.

Blake concluded that journalists should know that they are not alone in their work, and if they do not have editors to support them, they should find support among colleagues or elsewhere.

Lawrence Marzouk, a journalist and editor with Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, shed light on a case study about the arms trade from the Balkans and Central Europe to the Middle East, a report that caused serious reactions in the countries mentioned.

“You should first ‘pick the lowest hanging fruit’,” he said, while explaining how the reporting team tracked 1.2 billion euros of weapons sold to Middle Eastern countries.

Marzouk explained how reporters, while researching a “controversial industry” like the arms trade, “have to harvest all the possible open source databases” because the industry is highly regulated, meaning that there is a lot of documentation.

“To find the weakest link in the system, you have to know the system,” he.

Participants then had the opportunity to discuss techniques and databases with Marzouk using the arms trade story as an example.

Miranda Patrucic, an investigative reporter and regional editor with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, presented her work connected to the Panama Papers, giving an insight into how the research was done.

Patrucic explained how the offshore industry functions, through proxies, different types of companies, trusts and bearer shareholders. She also explained the interest countries with tax heavens have in allowing offshore companies to operate.

“These island states are very small with small costs. And all the documents for opening offshore companies, such as a certificate of good standing, cost something and the states make a significant profit on it,” she explained.

By showing concrete examples from the Panama Papers, Patrucic explained to the participants how to ‘follow the money’ and the businesses of offshore companies.

The former editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Martin Kaiser, ended the day with his masterclass session on investigative journalism.

“First of all, a journalist’s first obligation is to the truth,” Kaiser said.

“[Journalism’s] essence is discipline and verification… it must serve as an independent monitor of power,” he added. “It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise, meaning you have to listen… We make mistakes and when we do, we correct them.”

He also said that stories must be interesting and relevant.

“You got a significant story, how do you make it interesting? How do you make it relevant? How do you write in such a manner that it captures people’s attention?” Kaiser asked.

He explained that contemporary journalism has to use all the newest technologies and tools for writing stories, but underlined that journalists should remain “great storytellers” who “shed light where there was darkness”.

After presenting an outline of his work on a story about the high incidence of drunken drivers in the US state of Wisconsin, Kaiser gave the participants the opportunity to discuss what works and what does not in investigative journalism.

The Summer School is organised by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, in cooperation with the Media Program South East Europe of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung and with the support of the Open Society Foundations and USAID Macedonia.