By Darren Gilbert
“I believe that every bit of journalism that you do should be investigative.” That’s what you’ll hear if you ever meet investigative journalist Craig McKune and ask him a few questions about the industry he works in. Plying his trade for the M&G
Centre for Investigative Journalism or amaBhungane
, as it is better known, he’ll also explain to you that it can be done by anyone. According to him, the only real difference between regular journalism and investigative journalism lies in how deeply you interrogate what you are told.
It should be pointed out though that this doesn’t mean that all work can or needs to be investigative. There is also space needed for what he terms as the “reportage” side of journalism. That is the ‘he said, she said’ articles that you are most likely to find in newspapers today. A prime example of this is the very article that you are reading now – it’s not necessarily a bad thing, he adds. Such articles are just as good at doing their job of informing and enlightening, albeit a bit differently. However, it puts paid to the idea that while anyone can attempt to do investigative journalism, it’s not for everyone.
It’s a fact that McKune readily agrees with, even going so far as to say that there are personality types that fit this position better than others. “You need to be pedantic and thorough,” he believes. You also need to have good powers of analysis and logic and understand that it’s often slow and boring. “You often have this big pile of information and you just dive into it. You don’t know where you are going or what the story is, but you know there is something to investigate there.”
If that sounds like a theme park to you, then you’ll enjoy it. If not, it’s best to find another line of work. But there is more to investigative journalism than just having the right personality type. You also need time and support to do an effective job. As McKune explains, you are most likely to fail if you go it alone. “If I were to go into your average daily newspaper today, I probably wouldn’t be able to do the investigations that I do now. That’s simply because I wouldn’t have someone saying, ‘work on this for ages and come back when you think its time to publish it’.” Any good investigative piece is the result of putting in enough time and effort to get the complete picture, even if it takes a couple of weeks or months. Not every media outlet can afford that.
This doesn’t always happen, mind you. An occupational hazard of investigative journalism, if ever there was one. McKune points to last week’s front page article in the Mail & Guardian
regarding MTN and its involvement in Iran as the perfect example. “For me, that story is unsatisfactory because it was more a case of ‘he said, she said’. But our hand was forced. If we didn’t publish it, it would have been picked up by another newspaper and pulled apart.” The next time Mail & Guardian
is published; McKune and amaBhungane
would have been nowhere.
However, with the Mail & Guardian
now having gone ahead with it, it allows more time for McKune to go back and find out the actual truth. You want to know why something happened; if what someone says about it is the truth; what its relevance is to your audience and then try to convey it as whole a picture as you can. “On the hard investigative side, you are searching for the truth. What actually happened?” As McKune indicated, it takes time to uncover that. It also takes a soft approach.
“When I send out an email, people will see the signature at the bottom and yes, it does make them a little more hesitant to speak to me. But I can’t misrepresent myself.” So, instead of the blunt ‘Hey, I’m here to probe what you’re doing, can we meet?’, you need to approach it more cautiously or as McKune says, “softly”. A ‘Hi, do you mind giving me some context as to why you said xyz?’ line will get you closer to an opportunity to obtain the information you seek.
“That’s the main challenge – I think – getting people to talk.” It’s a test facing any journalist, mind you, but even more so for one coming from an investigative slant where it’s your prerogative to uncover the truth. In order to do that – in order to discover the truth – it comes down to how you approach your story. Do that right and you’ll reap the rewards.
What are your thoughts on investigative journalism? Is South African media getting it right? Leave your thoughts on our blog