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Citizen Investigations: Planning and Carrying Out an Investigation

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Investigation: A Learnable Skill

Journalists have to learn how to conduct investigations. Citizens can learn, too.

Citizen investigators often begin with a very important advantage – motivation. Their drive may be based on a particular irritation, a suspicion, or a special interest. Whatever the source, having a goal is an advantage.

Another plus for citizen investigators is having local or specialized knowledge. Thinking through your idea and assessing your goals is critical. Beginning with a question sets the stage for research. After that come other basic steps, including:

  • honing questions;
  • devising a plan for discovery;
  • conducting research;
  • assembling and evaluating your findings;
  • summarizing your conclusions.

We’ll provide suggestions in all of these areas, but this is necessarily an abbreviated treatment, a synopsis drawn from the experience of investigative journalists worldwide plus guidebooks and articles about doing investigations.

For a deeper dive into investigative techniques, GIJN has compiled a list of manuals written for journalists. (See more on this below.) They are quite accessible to non-journalists.

One common theme that runs throughout the advice is that there is no single way to conduct an investigation, and improvisation will be necessary.

Mindset and Preparing Questions

Asking a question is the springboard to discovery. The right question both motivates and disciplines the investigative process. It doesn’t have to be the perfect question. After all, you’re looking into the unknown. Nor does it have to be precise, but it shouldn’t be overly general.

What is it you really want to know? What are you looking for?

Framing the query as a theory, a hypothesis, is important. Keep it short, write it down, even pin it up. Some journalists like to draft the start of the story, as if the premise was true.

The question helps you move forward. From the overall question, subsidiary questions will likely flow. You may even hypothesize several alternative hypotheses. Having a hypothesis is not the same as having a bias. The foundation of an investigation will be shaky if it is built on a false assumption or a personal bias. Having too narrow a theory of what’s going on might prevent you from seeing other rationales and facts. So question assumptions. If evidence points in another direction, it’s essential to revise one’s hypothesis. The facts make the story.

This is one of the toughest challenges in conducting an investigation. Continue to be skeptical as you go, and also be open to the evidence as it emerges. This is particularly important if you have political views or a personal stake regarding the investigative topic. Evidence that contradicts your thesis needs to be included in your analysis. Remember that investigations may not always take you where you thought they would, but that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes the facts will lead you down unexpected paths. Remember, too, that the world is a complex place, and bad guys are not always so bad, nor good guys always so good.

Beginning Your Research

At this beginning stage, take stock of what you don’t know. Write down what you would like to find out.

Put another way, what facts would shed the most light on your hypothesis?

Doing deep background research pays off.

Many investigators prefer to do paper research before doing people research. Documents before interviews. But exceptions may be useful, such as to get a basic education from an expert.

Explore what’s been written already about the subject.

As you read, try to learn about:

  • the basic facts of the subject;
  • relevant history and figures;
  • the language of the subject area, the lingo (key terms and definitions);
  • the key actors.

Remember the classic questions: Who? What? Where? When? And why?

Questions to Ask

As you go, keep asking (yourself):

  • Do public documents/data exist and where?
  • What nonpublic documents/data might exist?
  • Where are documents and data kept?
  • Who is involved?
  • How are they connected? (Some researchers create maps.)
  • What vested interests exist?
  • What people might tell you about it?
  • Where did/do things occur physically?
  • What are the consequences?
  • Who benefits and who is hurt?

As you delve deeper, you will no doubt refine your goals.

Make a timetable of the next steps for planning purposes. Set priorities.

Many researchers prefer to circle in on the subject, gathering evidence before confronting key people.

Consider your schedule. What activities might take longer, like a trip to a site or an official request for documents?


The interview is one of the most effective tools in the investigator’s toolbox.

Good preparation and careful listening are keys to success. Good interviewing is an art akin to good conversation.

Let’s look at these elements in more detail. For additional guidance see GIJN’s resource page on interviewing.

Good Preparation: This step begins by considering what your interview subject might know, what his or her motivations are, and what you want to learn. Choose a venue comfortable for the interviewee, put him or her at ease, and build trust.

Ground Rules: Explain who you are, why you are interested, and what you plan to do with the information. Agree about how the information can be used. How will it be attributed? Will the person’s name be used? Consider whether their safety could be compromised.

Good Questions: Writing down your questions and organizing them logically is advisable. Some experts like to start with softer questions. Consider neutral, open-ended questions, but don’t shy away from pointed inquiries or questions about feelings. Avoid questions likely to be answered by “yes” or “no.” Instead ask questions such as “how,” “why,” and “what.” Short, single-subject questions are good. Listen attentively and ask follow-up questions.

Special care should be taken when interviewing young or vulnerable persons. Advice on this score is included in GIJN’s resource page on human trafficking.

When possible, record interviews. Otherwise, take good notes.

Keep a notebook and pen with you. Use a camera, including for photos of documents.

Creating an accurate record of your research findings is one of the most essential tasks you’ll be doing.

Your credibility will depend on the reliability of your information and your documentation.

Consider how to protect yourself and your sources from harm. Basic steps include strong passwords and encrypted phone calls. For tips on protection, refer to the section on digital security.

Doing Research: The Paper Trail

Among the most common mistakes investigators make is not starting off with a thorough search of what has already been published. Don’t reinvent the wheel! Search news reports, academic reports, government records, local archives, and other sources of published information, until you are sure you have a full understanding of what’s already out there. Then you can build on that.

The modern impulse is to do internet research first, which is fine.

But remember that not everything is online. For example, some government documents may only be available physically, in government offices.

Besides, what’s online may not be trustworthy, so evaluate if the source is credible and how the information can be verified.

Consider alternative places where the desired information might exist:

  • Beside national government agency records, are there court records or state and local records?
  • Who might have collected material and have an archive? Community activists, hobbyists, academics, and professional associations are among fruitful places to look.
  • Searching back issues of newspapers and magazines is often productive.
  • Librarians and archivists can be your friends.

Good probing requires imagination.

If one path is blocked, look for other sources of related information. If you can’t get a desired document, ask how else can you get the information. Perhaps two parties are involved, such as a government and a contractor. Be flexible, agile, resourceful.

Government denials of information may not be the final word. Consider filing an official request using your country’s access to information law. You may want to seek out a local access-to-information group for help in making an appeal.

Chapter 3 of this guide provides tips on effective internet research and will introduce you to the known tools for finding out about people, corporations, and governments. When journalists refer to “open source investigations,” they mean using many techniques to find publicly available information.

Canadian Girl Tested Water Samples
How One Kid Stopped the Contamination of a River was the headline for an article about 11-year-old Stella Bowles. She collected and analyzed water samples from the LaHave River, which runs beside her home on the South Shore of Nova Scotia, Canada.

Due Diligence

As you research, be cautious. As they say in the financial world, exercise “due diligence” by making sure that documents are authentic and being alert for factual contradictions and inconsistencies.

Throughout the research process, be wary. What you hear might be inaccurate. The accuracy of a fact needs to be confirmed. A source’s word should be questioned. A photo may need to be verified. In the worst-case scenario, documents may be fraudulent. Authenticate and verify.

“Primary” documents are original documents that provide firsthand testimony or direct evidence about your topic.

When drawing facts from documents, look back for the original source. Follow footnotes. Examine the credentials of the source. Search for the authors. Look for criticisms of the authors or the study that gave rise to the “fact.”

You may want to seek help in understanding complex documents, especially those involving technical, bureaucratic, legal, and financial language. As you consult experts, remember that they are not only sources of knowledge and opinion, but also may guide you to other documents and experts. Always ask sources questions such as: What else should I read? Who else should I talk with? Who actually witnessed this?

“Secondary” sources, such as published articles, websites, and social media may not be reliable. You’re trusting the work of others. Verify!

Increasingly, citizen investigators have turned to social media to request information. Such “crowdsourcing” may be useful, but tips require confirmation.

Research has a way of expanding and investigations can be wearying. Some leads are disappointing dead-ends. That’s just how it goes.

Focusing on the original goal can be rejuvenating. At this stage, you may need to draft new questions and hypotheses. Stay alert for new developments.

Doing background research sets you up for interviewing. Your research should generate names of people to contact.

US Family Documents Toxic Waste
Ayne Amjad, a doctor, continued her parents’ information-gathering to document the medical effects of toxic chemicals dumped in their West Virginia community. She then advocated for action, a story told by The Washington Post.


Unless there’s a golden document, most investigation requires the direct knowledge and perspective of credible sources and experts.

Through open source research and by talking with people, identify possible sources. Some ideas include:

  • experts, those who have spoken or written on the topic;
  • officials, but don’t think only of the top ones;
  • affected parties, from all sides;
  • advocates, people in groups associated with the topic, such as civic or professional groups;
  • “formers,” or people formerly involved with the subject, such as former employees.

Think about possible relationships:

  • Who is affected, adversely or positively?
  • Who gains?
  • Who loses?
  • Who might have heard or seen something?
  • Who has an interest in talking?

Some investigators create source maps defining relationships. Spreadsheets can be useful for keeping a list of possible sources.

The number of sources you use is important to the integrity of the information. Two is considered the minimum, but more is better.

Not only does a larger pool of sources ensure the reliability of the information, it usually means more detail and nuance. You may have personally witnessed something, and that is usable, too.

Consider the source. Research them, too. Does the “expert” really have good credentials? Possibly a vested interest? Who are they? What’s their agenda? Did the “eyewitness” really see an event, or just hear about it secondhand? Confirm their statements.

It may take time to cultivate a source, particularly when sensitive subjects are involved. Be sensitive to their fears. It may take several meetings with a source before he or she is forthcoming. These relationships are often built on trust, and it will be up to you to establish that.

For a discussion of journalistic ethics, see Chapter 3.

Take good notes. When possible and legal, record interviews, but take notes, too.

Besides talking with people, make site visits when appropriate. “Field trips” sometimes yield unexpected results. Visual checks may determine the accuracy of government reports by comparing claims with the reality on the ground. You may have chance encounters with people who can help.

Documenting Your Research

Whether you are finding things online or talking with people, it’s vital to maintain good records.

Make sure you can point to the source of the information and prove its accuracy, and maintain records of your research and your contacts. Preserving your research record means retaining documents and knowing where they came from. It even means anticipating that online documents could disappear and protecting against that possibility by printing or downloading them. It means keeping track of who you heard things from and when, and having good notes.

Keeping your investigative findings organized will pay dividends. There’s a temptation to skimp on good labeling and careful filing, whether in paper or digitally. A well-organized archive of material will make it easier to find what you know and define what you don’t know. Some experts suggest creating a master file to serve as an index to where your material exists.

The End Game

For journalists, the outcome of an investigation is usually an article or broadcast. Citizen investigators might write an article, a report, a blog post, or a letter to the editor. Or they may take their evidence to legal or other authorities.

Regardless of the specific medium, you’ll want to communicate your findings effectively.

It’s almost always important to summarize your conclusions clearly and briefly.

Think about your organization. A tried and true organizational form is telling the story chronologically, but other systems can work, too. Before you begin writing, an outline usually helps, even if it changes later.

The redrafting process is a time to think about factual gaps and make sure that the facts are correct and attributed. Spell names and places correctly. Small mistakes undercut credibility. Have you avoided plagiarism? Violated agreements with sources?

When writing, and later when editing, ask whether the product explains things smoothly and clearly to a reader looking at it for the first time. Is the story meaningful to the reader?

Consider cutting extraneous language and material. Editors often talk about flow and rhythm — whether there is a “narrative” that carries the reader along. Photographs, charts, and other visualizations also help tell stories.

The final days of writing typically mean double-checking your facts and speaking to subjects of the investigation that you may not have wanted to talk with before.

Ask persons familiar and unfamiliar with the topic to read your product critically.

As an investigator, you are not bound by the high legal standards of an honest prosecutor, such as proof “beyond reasonable doubt,” or whether the “balance of probabilities” tips one way or another. But these are useful touchstones, and something to keep in mind if your intent is to submit information to a prosecutor or legislator.

Look down the road. Is there a danger that you could be charged with libel or defamation? What might be the consequences of your investigation? Consider your safety as well as the safety of those affected.

Overall, are you satisfied that the result is fair? Can you stand behind it?

You may be praised or criticized.

Investigations rarely are final. So how can you follow up, as an investigator or an advocate?

Guides to Investigative Reporting

Many good how-to manuals have been written. Below we list some of the best.

You’ll find a bigger collection here at the GIJN Resource Center. Also, guides in Chinese and Spanish.

We also have material on defining investigative journalism. While those definitions vary, among professional journalism groups there is broad agreement of its major components, writes David E. Kaplan, GIJN’s executive director: “systematic, in-depth, and original research and reporting, often involving the unearthing of secrets.” (Investigative Journalism, Defining the Craft). (See also Kaplan’s video explanation.)

Kaplan states:

Investigative journalism involves exposing to the public matters that are concealed – either deliberately by someone in a position of power, or accidentally, behind a chaotic mass of facts and circumstances that obscure understanding. It requires using both secret and open sources and documents.

So let’s get started:

Story-based Inquiry: A Manual for Investigative Journalists focuses on “hypothesis-based inquiry.” Published by UNESCO in 2009, it is available in seven languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.) It provides a guide to the basic methods and techniques of investigative journalism.

Investigative Journalism Manual: This useful guide began as a handbook for African journalists, with case studies and exercises, published by the German foundation Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. The latest edition is global and is designed for reporters facing repressive media laws, lack of transparency, and limited resources. It is available in various languages and as an interactive website. It takes a step-by-step approach, making suggestions such as: “After coming up with a concrete idea, creating a hypothesis, source mapping is the next stage of the investigative reporting process.”

From Citizen Reporting to Citizen Journalism is a guide created by the group Media Helping Media.

Investigative Reporter’s Handbook: A Guide to Documents, Databases, and Techniques. The fifth edition of this book by Brant Houston and the US group Investigative Reporters and Editors is available for sale online.

Concerning basic journalism skills, one of many resources is Journalism Essentials by the American Press Institute, with chapters on what journalists do, objectivity, and accuracy.

The Verification Guide for Investigative Journalists from the European Journalism Center has 10 chapters and three case studies. Topics include online research tools, data, user-generated content, and ethics.

There are only a few materials designed specifically for citizens.

Exposing the Invisible – The Kit: The Tactical Technology Collective’s 2019 resource has chapters on what makes an investigation; advanced internet searching; finding and retrieving historical and “lost” information from websites; investigating the ownership of websites; using maps, geographic data, and satellite imagery to find and visualize information; extracting information from social apps; and more. Tactical Tech is an NGO based in Berlin that trains human rights advocates.

Raising Hell: A Citizen’s Guide to the Fine Art of Investigation. This one is a rather old (1983) and US-focused, but is infused with a fighting spirit and good advice.

Citizen Journalism (subtitled: “A rough guide to telling stories in word and image”) is a collection of articles by Australian “independent online and photojournalist” Russ Grayson.

Ethics for the Citizen Journalist, by journalist Isabelle Gubas, reviews how some basic journalism standards should apply to anyone doing investigations.

Should kids be overlooked? Here’s a guide aimed at younger investigators, produced by Rappler, an investigative journalism powerhouse in the Philippines.

Using Data

There are many resources on how to do research using data.

The Data Journalism Handbook is a very inclusive guide to using data as part of an investigation.

GIJN’s Resource Page has lots more on data journalism here.

Collaborations More Common

Research by groups, even whole communities, is increasingly possible, sometimes aided by online data and applications.

For example, a user-friendly tool for citizens to track the implementation of constituency projects was created by legislative watchdog OrderPaper Nigeria. The ConsTrack mobile app “comes loaded with verified and validated information on the location of the projects, amount appropriated, level of funding provided the implementing ministry, department or agency, status of implementation, and the profiles of the legislators concerned.”

The Russian site Tak-Tak-Tak facilitates citizen investigations, gives free legal advice, and answers questions from the public (see Tak-Tak-Tak intake page). Any registered Tak-Tak-Tak network member can start a new investigation or join an existing one. The user who announces the investigation receives lead investigation status. For more about the process, see this section of the website.

A web-based app developed in India can be used by community members to collect data on tree cover, burned areas, and other changes, thus helping rural communities protect their land, according to reporting by This is Place.

In Italy, Monithon is an initiative to promote the civic monitoring of public funds.

Map Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, is an interactive community information project that creates open digital maps of local communities.

Following the 2013 bombings at the Boston marathon, thousands of people used Reddit to share images and information to discover the identity of the bombers, not always with accurate results.

In Russia, citizen activists have established websites to identify and collect information about law enforcement officers suspected of misdeeds, for example Beware of Them and OVDinfo.


There are risks involved in doing investigations, and certain precautions may be necessary.

At the extreme end of the spectrum, a milkman in India was allegedly murdered by armed assailants in 2018. He had filed an application under the Right to Information (RTI) Act seeking information about a local construction project, according to a media report.

GIJN’s Safety and Security Resource Center provides guidance on prudent steps for journalists and they have messages for others seeking information.

Here are some useful sources:

Committee to Protect Journalists’ Safety Kit: CPJ’s four-part Safety Kit issued in 2018 provides journalists and newsrooms with basic safety information on physical, digital, and psychological safety resources and tools. It is available in English, SpanishFrench, Arabic, RussianSomali, PersianPortuguese, Chinese, Turkish, and Burmese.

The Practical Guide for the Security of Journalists was updated in 2017 by Reporters Without Borders and UNESCO. It is available in EnglishFrenchSpanish, and Portuguese.

Freelance Journalist Safety Principles: These guidelines were issued in February 2015 by a coalition of major news companies and journalism organizations. Translations are available in Arabic, French, Hebrew, Persian, Russian, Spanish, and Turkish.

Finally, if you get stuck, try the GIJN Resource Center, which has over a thousand tip sheets and tools, and our Help Desk, used by journalists around the world. Happy hunting and good luck!

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