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Aiming for the Stars: Teaching Investigative Journalism

This paper was presented during the professor’s track at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in October 2013 in Rio De Janeiro. For more on educators and investigative reporting, see the Investigative Journalism Education Consortium



  NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Wisconsin.

This paper outlines an approach to teaching investigative journalism that produces publishable stories within an approximately four –month period. It is based on a five-step method that has been developed over the past few years on a journalism programme for graduate students. With refinements, the method is getting an increasing proportion of students to complete a successful investigation. From about 10 per cent initially, to now over half of students are now producing publishable investigative features within the four-month teaching period. The method provides a good learning platform for many aspects of the investigative process, and appears especially successful at motivating students to develop perseverance, but has some limitations in the type of stories produced.


Investigative journalism is a more demanding form of journalism, requiring patience, perseverance, and often more advanced technical skills. Despite a decline in  investigative journalism produced by mainstream media in recent years, as declining print revenues caused  many large news organisations to cut  investigative teams, there has been a growth in non-profit organisations, both local and global in reach, dedicated to producing and supporting investigative journalism, and courses on the study and practice of investigative journalism seem to have remained  popular.

Teaching the practise of investigative journalism poses many problems that teaching basic journalism does not. Most investigations take time; usually months, and it can be difficult to fit this time commitment into an academic year, especially when the other requirements of a busy curriculum need to be met. Investigations can be challenging, requiring a level of perseverance, patience, and mental toughness that a young person, perhaps straight out of university, can not reasonably be expected to have acquired. Thirdly, they can struggle to get access to opinion-makers without the backing of a major news organisation behind them. Fourthly, they lack what Michael Schudson (1978) calls  “mature subjectivity”, or what Ettema and Glasser (1998) described as the ability to “think in action” that comes from years of experience.

Encouraging students to take on a task beyond their ability can set them up to fail and risks crushing their enthusiasm and confidence, thereby becoming a negative learning experience. On the other hand, students have an extraordinary enthusiasm, and confidence that can help them imagine projects and get access that older reporters, from a different generation, are not aware of. Students’ sheer naivety can also help them access that more experienced reporters may not; or may have talked themselves out of attempting. Houston (2002) has pointed out the success that veteran Washington investigator Jack Anderson has had with interns.

However, these very difficulties can also present opportunities.  The nature of an investigation presents great opportunities as a learning vehicle, for teaching many of the most important aspects of journalistic craft; how to persevere, how to deal with many kinds of people, how issues get framed, and spun, how to find people, how to persuade them to talk, how to find documents, and other evidence, and sift opinion, spin, and outright lies  from fact, the importance of provable fact, and so on. Furthermore, the right kind of investigation, if selected by the student, has the enormous advantage of being their own project, and thus something they are more motivated to finish. It is argued here that with time, and the right kind of mentoring and support at the right times, students can achieve remarkable results.

When compared to the thousands of books on journalistic practice, the literature on investigative journalistic practice is remarkably thin. This may reflect its relatively recent rise in popularity, since the 1970s.  Even within the investigative journalism canon, much of the literature is memoir, or case studies of investigative journalists. The number of actual texts that attempt to theorise the craft is probably less than 30, and certainly less than 100. As Mark Hanna has pointed out, much of this is normative, or descriptive; in the nature of what might be called  “tradecraft” (de Burgh, 2000).  Typically, many texts devote large sections to databases, and where to find information, but not a lot about the actual process of an investigation. Most textbooks, or case studies, when they do attempt to generalise about investigative method, use a typological approach; listing key attributes of investigative reporters, such as patience, perseverance, tenacity, attention to detail, and so on. Typically, they then outline case studies in which investigative journalists have demonstrated these attributes, and/or outline sources of data in various fields. One well-known British text, for example, quotes several investigative journalists who list the qualities needed as being “Luck, persistence, a desire to get to the bottom of things, being single minded, and “having a feeling of outrage about wrongdoing”, they must also be flexible, and not mind being out of step with the herd  (Spark, 1999, p. 13).

Two of the more influential academic studies of the craft have also emphasised the tradecraft nature of investigative work. Ettema and Glasser used master practitioner theory to describe how investigative journalists work, using an accumulation of experience, in which they have developed a repertoire of moves, which they then apply depending on what their experience tells them about a situation. They call this ability to entertain a “conversation with the situation” is fundamental to the success of the craft (1998).

James Aucoin’s study of American investigative journalism also emphasised the role of ethical work practice in determining the success of an investigation. He used MacIntyre’s social practice theory, based on Aristotelian ethics, which argues that good work is the result of a person acting virtuously. Aucoin argued that the application of standards, such as applying a high standard of truth-telling, proving facts, and being free of malice and independent, were essential elements of the work practice; when applied with justice, courage, and truth,  these standards helped define the success or otherwise of investigative work (Aucoin, 2005).

This emphasis on tradecraft  is understandable in a profession about which a literature barely existed 30-40 years ago. Surely the first step, before trying to generalise, is to describe the practices about which one is trying to generalise. But it does not amount to a theory, does not tell us much about the unique nature of the journalistic investigative process, and does not tell us much about how students of the field should apply these principles.

More recently, writers have begun to outline the first steps towards theories of investigative journalism practice. One of the most useful of these is in the influential U.S. textbook, the Investigative Reporter’s Handbook. Co-editor Brant Houston, while noting the aversion to theorising amongst investigative journalists, suggests the outlines of a theory:  “Although investigative journalists rarely think of themselves as theorists, they do have watchwords, such as [a] ‘documents state of mind’ and ‘time equals truth’, that rise to the level of theory.” Houston suggests that these watchwords can be encapsulated in a kind of theory, or technique, that he calls “ working from the outside in”.

If the theory were rendered graphically, it would resemble concentric circles, with the outermost circle labelled ‘secondary sources’, the middle circle called ‘primary documents’ and the inner circle ‘human sources’. The main subject is at the center.  (Houston, et al., 2002, p. 3).

Houston helpfully describes in some detail what these circles mean, and how to penetrate them. For example, a “documents state of mind” means assuming that somewhere, a document exists. With human sources, the skills required are learning to identify them, and persuading them to talk. He describes how human sources may not just be the obvious ones, such as spouses, but previous– spouses, partners, employees; what are known in the trade as  “formers”. “[Formers] often have scores to settle, or outdated knowledge, but can risk candour, have had time to reflect, and may have kept documents” (Houston, et al., 2002, p. 6).

This concentric model does not apply to all investigations; some undercover operations, for example, could almost be seen as a reverse of the process. But it does give prospective investigative journalists undertaking a non-undercover investigation a kind of template of how to proceed with an investigation, and an indication of the likely course it will take.

Another attempt at theorising investigative practice relies on what might be called a variation on scientific method, in which an hypothesis is formed, then an attempt made to prove or disprove it. If disproved, new hypotheses are formed until finally one which fits the facts is found.   A good example of this kind of process is the “Insight Method” developed by the Insight investigation on The Sunday Times during its glory years in the 1970s.

An Insight investigation might start with a theory, perhaps myth.. Then begin attempting to lure the facts towards it … if the theory had to be abandoned, then another was constructed. The knowledge that time was on your side, to get the story right and true rather than simply on to the front page, meant that the journalism was sustained by its own dynamic … the process of establishing the facts, of testing sources, and above all, discarding tempting but fallible theories was relentless. (Magnus Linklater, cited in Spark, 1999, p. 27)

An excellent, and much fuller description of this approach is European investigator Mark-Lee Hunter’s hypothesis-based reporting method. He suggests the hypothesis-based approach has many advantages, particularly for students, not least because it helps them avoid getting lured into trying to find secrets, instead simply relying on more accessible information sources (Lee-Hunter, 2009).

A variation on the hypothesis-based approach was developed by U.S. investigative reporter Paul Williams. His  ten-step method is a good description of the process of many more complex investigations. These are: 1. Conception (what might be called finding the lead). 2. Feasibility study – how hard is it, and what resources are needed. 3. Go-no-go decision (a kind of cost-benefit analysis of whether it’s worth it). 4. Base building (what might be called background research). 5. Planning – deciding who will have the proof needed and how to get it. 6. Original research (following and paper and people trail. 7. Re-evaluation (step 3 again). 8. Filling the gaps (what else do we need?). 9. Final evaluation (have we proved anything? Is is true?).  10. Writing. 11. Publication and follow-up stories (Cited inHouston, et al., 2002, pp. 8-13).

Problems with current approaches

I have found that the hypothesis based approach, and highly detailed processes such as Williams’, can be too intimidating for budding journalists. Some find the burden of coming up with an hypothesis too much, when all they may have is the glimmer of an idea, or feeling, that they wish to explore. It also tends to narrow the enquiry too early, and can lock them into a way of thinking which makes it harder for them to change course or direction later. Likewise, I feel that some models under-emphasise the background research phase, particularly for young people who may not have the background knowledge of how institutions work. Another common problem is the data collection phase – what Williams calls following the paper/ people trails. Students often lack concepts that can help them categorise what kind of witnesses, and what kind of paper. Another critical phase, where support is most needed, is near the end of the data-gathering phase, when they are trying to get answers from often reluctant target figures or institutions. At the writing phase, they can easily become bogged down in too much detail.

Whereas experienced investigative journalists have the memory of previous successes to sustain them in the face of setbacks, and a “repertoire of moves” to surmount them, students do not. They have great enthusiasm, but that is usually not enough to get them over the inevitable hurdles that arise. A model is needed that takes advantage of student strengths, while managing their weaknesses, which is not just about content delivery, but ideally also give students the experience of a successful investigation, so they can learn some of the other lessons, such as the complexities of the writing process.

Mark Hanna, who teaches investigative journalism at Sheffield University, recognises this problem. He argues that while a published article might be the ideal, this kind of “outcome-focussed” approach  is often beyond what is possible in a time-restricted course, and can  make enormous and unsustainable demands on a teacher’s time. He points out, too, that students often have unrealistic ideas of what is possible, and set their nets too wide. Drawing on theoretical  debate between product orientated and process orientated – teaching for learning, or pedagogical/ test-based, , he argues that a more appropriate  approach, is the process-orientated approach,  what Van Eijk calls the “input” of investigative work; i.e. learning the tools and crafts, and practising applying them, without necessarily getting a publishable article out of it. His approach is tightly controlled; he  chooses topics, and  tries to ensure the teams and topics are equal. He has found this is a solution to the common problem of students getting close to a publishable standard just as the course finishes, then leaving and losing all incentive to finish the piece (de Burgh, 2000).

Towards a new theory of investigative practice and teaching

What should be the learning outcomes, or goals, of a module teaching investigative journalism practice? And what kind of approach would best meet it? Obviously this will depend a lot on student level, and time available. But surely some broad outlines can be sketched.

To do this, perhaps some further discussion of what exactly is the basis of investigative journalistic practice would be useful. Is it the accumulation of a series of practices and techniques, a “repertoire of moves” accumulated through experience? Or also an attitude, a state of mind, a set of personality characteristics? If the latter, then common factors repeated in most investigative journalism texts include patience, perseverance, tenacity, integrity (including the ability to keep secrets) and the kinds of social skills that enable one to persuade people to talk. If one was to construct a theory of investigative practice, it would look something like this:
The success of an investigation depends on the determination of the journalist to prove a truth that goes beyond allegation and denial, and their ability to find evidence to do that. The ability to find the evidence depends on a) that evidence being in existence, and b) the reporter knowing and being able to apply the appropriate methods to acquire it.

This very rough, and tentative attempt at a theory of investigative journalism practice is an attempt to encapsulate not only vital aspects of investigative practice such as tradecraft and knowledge of databases and computer tools; but also those attributes of personality that most practitioners agree are just as important. Can these attributes be taught? How?

Learning theory based on the constructivist approach of Vygotsky suggests that learning is best done through social discourse (e.g. through discussion with an experienced mentor) (Wood & Wood, 1996). Students also often learn best when learning is peer-based, and project-based (Eisen, 2001).  Motivational theory suggests that students are motivated by success, and the knowledge that they are pursuing a realistic, authentic goal that they care about (Boekaerts, 2002).

While many students often rip into a topic with great enthusiasm, they can easily become discouraged once the initial novelty wears thin. At this point, the investigation (like any learning practice) become hard, tedious grind, and the student must either draw on innate reserves of resilience, or quickly learn it. At this point, the investigation becomes a vehicle for learning the vital skills of tenacity, determination, and patience. Whereas an experienced reporter can draw on past successes (the “repertoire of moves” again) to sustain him or her through these difficult periods, the novice has no such repertoire, and thus a successful teaching model must both allow for these difficult periods to develop, and show them there is a way through.

With this in mind, a model was developed that encourages students to own and take responsibility for the process, provides them with an authentic, realistic goal, and provides maximum mentoring at crucial “choke” points. The model requires them to produce an article that is publishable in mainstream media. While this may seem an unrealistic goal for some, in my experience it gives the investigation a focus and energy that can make the difference in getting it finished. I have found that letting them set their own topic, and reminding them that a published investigation will greatly assist them getting a job, are powerful motivators. They recognise that not all of them will achieve this, but do not seem to begrudge those who do. On balance, they seem to prefer having the chance at least of success, rather than the whole course pitched lower.

Through trial and error, a five-step method has been developed that aims to make the process simple, and as unintimidating as possible, free up as much teacher time as possible for the crucial moments, and which is based on the principles of project-based, peer-based learning. The steps are:

1. Find a lead. This is similar to the hypothesis-based approach, with the difference being that students are not required to come up with a hypothesis. They are encouraged to think of things they are curious about, outraged about, passionate about. One suggestion that seems to get them thinking is to ask them to list those things, plus what they have for reading on their bedside table. We then do a class workshop where we whiteboard everyone’s lists. Commonalities soon appear – students become aware that other students are interested in the same things and they are encouraged to work together if they wish. Students naturally form alliances, and many do, but they are also free to work on their own if they prefer.

2. Become an expert. This is similar to Houston’s concentric circle model. They are encouraged to read all the secondary material available. A lecture is given on ways of finding it, including the use of Google Scholar, citation searches, advanced news text searching, and so on. Once they are well into this literature, more ideas, or leads should form, and a kind of hypothesis will take shape. They are particularly encouraged to seek out examples of best practice from overseas, which their local case study can be compared to. A common phrase I use is “How is it done in Australia?”

3. Gather the evidence. They should now have some idea of the story, and thus what kind of evidence they need to tell it. This is what Houston calls the primary sources; such as human sources, and/or primary source documents. The students will be interviewing witnesses, requesting documents under Freedom of Information legislation, and cultivating sources. Increasingly, many use social media, either to find people or as a research tool (several have done surveys using Facebook).

4. Testing the evidence. Once they have as much evidence as they can get, the evidence needs to be assessed. Does it tell the story they hoped? What’s missing? Who else do they need to talk to? This phase is also where they will put their allegations, if necessary, to the target of their investigation.  Depending on the result of that they may need to make further inquiries. They may also need someone to help them make sense of what seem like irreconcilable sides. At this point I encourage them to find the ‘independent expert’ figure; someone well-informed about the field, but not affiliated with either side. Often, it will be an academic with a background in the field. Skype has made this much easier. Often, they will find someone in the U.S., Europe, or Asia that has made a lifetime’s study of the field and can provide an informed opinion. This whole step is the most difficult for students, and often where they give up. However, if they can be supported through it, it also offers the richest learning opportunities, encapsulating many of the most important journalistic skills; tenacity, perseverance, patience, dealing with conflict and negotiating tense situations with politeness and firmness.

5. Telling the story. This is also an important phase. Most students have not written a longer feature before, particularly one involving many different points of view and often complex, multiple themes. To prepare them for this, we have a feature writing class earlier in the year in which they practise writing a basic form that can be applied to most situations (the anecdotal lead, nutpar/ theme by theme approach popularised by the Philadelphia Inquirer, among others). This makes getting at least a first draft of their feature out seem less impossible. We have found, through trial and error, that it is better to set them an early deadline (about a month before the course ends) and require them to produce a draft at that time for marking.  They are told that extensions may be possible, but  only for those students who produce a draft, no matter how rough. This draft usually has holes that need more interviewing or research to cover off. However it gives the tutor and student something to work with. It is common for students at this stage to want to go on researching, and sometimes this can become an avoidance tactic to avoid the difficult of writing and perhaps confronting target figures. Sometimes, they think they have found little or nothing, when in fact they often have most of a story there, albeit on a narrower topic than they’d hoped. Getting a draft helps the tutor narrow the inquiry down, and show the student where are the holes that must be fixed to reach a publishable standard. The tutor can then give very specific advice (e.g. about where to find an independent expert) and show the student they are very close to having something published. Another useful tactic is to get the students to pitch the concept at this point to a publication. The answer is almost invariably along the lines of “We’ll have a look at it”. This gives the student encouragement, and gives them more leverage with difficult sources (e.g. government officials); they can say they are writing for a specific publication. It also provides an extra degree of motivation, in the sense that their work seems relevant and will have a more tangible outcome.

Teaching process

The module is taught over four months, from mid-May to mid-September, to a post-graduate professional journalism class of about 23 students.  Class time is kept to a minimum. The module begins with six lectures, of about  1.5 hours, each, outlining the history, role and process of investigative journalism.  An emphasis is placed on studying stories done by previous students of the course. I have found that too much emphasis on  famous cases is intimidating for students, and that they need to see examples of work that they feel they could have done themselves.

Students are then asked to produce a research proposal, at the end of the lecture week, outlining a topic of their own choosing, and discussing briefly how they propose to investigate it e.g. the sources, methods, legal issues they may face, and a potential , publication. Students are then left alone for about six weeks to become experts in their topic, and research it. They are expected to do this around other parts of the course, which continue on in the meantime.

In mid-August, there is a another block of class time, with a deadline to produce a final  article  of up to 2000 words by the end of the week. They are told it must be presented in PUBLISHABLE form. Most students at this stage can only produce a basic draft, with many holes, missing sources, and unanswered questions. However, the process of writing it helps clarify the issue for them, and see where they need to do more research. Also, it gives the tutor a chance to provide specific advice on how to narrow the inquiry, what questions need follow-up, and where to find additional material needed. This narrowing phase is vital. Students often say they feel overwhelmed at this stage, that they have gathered a lot of information, but haven’t found out anything. A second pair of experienced eyes, affirming what’s new about what they’ve found, and showing that often their story may only require a couple more phone calls, is highly energising for students. They suddenly realise that a published article is a real possibility

At this stage the students really start to get some momentum, and what seemed like a vague pile of information starts to seem like a realistic goal for them. An additional motivation is that they will be on the job market in early October, and they are told, and are well aware, that a published investigation will greatly advantage them at job interviews.

The next phase, from mid-August to mid-September, they are encouraged to work hard to conclude their investigation, fill in any holes in the draft, and polish it to a publishable standard. This is the phase in which it is crucial that the tutor is highly interventionist, as many students hit an obstacle (e.g. a blocked Freedom of Information request) and tend to stall. Or they may be struggling with organising the material, and feel they have something that is too long. As the final deadline for submission approaches, they are encouraged to send in further drafts, and detailed comments are provided or even actual help with rewriting or polishing.  Once a good draft has been hammered out, they are encouraged to submit to a mainstream publication. Only those that are very close to a publishable standard are encouraged to do this. It is important to maintain good relations with editors, and not bombard them with substandard material. Usually the editor asks for a few small changes, the student makes them, in conjunction with the tutor, and the story is published.

At the end of September, students are required to submit their stories for marking, at whatever stage they have got to by then. Stories are marked on the depth and quality of inquiry (go beyond allegation and denial to establish truth), the originality of topic, and the quality of writing.   Those that have gone through a reasonable, demonstrably thorough investigative process (even if they haven’t produced a publishable article from it) are passed. So far, all students have been able to demonstrate this. Students are also required, in line with university requirements for them to demonstrate critical thinking, that they produce a reflective essay, or exegesis, outlining their investigative method, the process of their inquiry, and what it has added to knowledge, and what they have learned from it.

Results and discussion

From fairly limited beginnings, the module has begun to produce an increasing number of articles published in mainstream media. In 2010, there were only  two published out of about 15 projects. However, one major piece was completed; an investigation that showed a council had allowed houses to be built on a toxic site, and had not told residents. In 2011, two out of 15 were published. In 2012, when this five-step method was introduced, with earlier deadline, to give time for polishing, we got three out of 15 published by course end, and seven more accepted, all of which were published by the end of the year. This year, we have had two published three weeks before the course finished (one in a national Sunday newspaper, another a metro daily). Another seven had reached publishable standard and were in the process of being pitched, or accepted and being worked on. With some students working in pairs, this represents about three-quarters of the class.

The quality varies greatly. The best students do find something new, and prove it. About 10 per cent, at most, of the projects achieve this.   Of the rest, most may not go beyond allegation and denial, ending up with what might be called a solid news backgrounder. However, all generally offer new information, and independent comment that seeks to contextualise differing opinions.

One important thing we have learned is to pick the newspapers carefully. Some editors we liaised with early on, because they local,  were unhelpful, or unresponsive, or just uninterested in investigative work. One piece, which used freedom of information records to show local councils were pocketing pokie funds meant for public interest projects, was rejected as ‘too dry’. It was run elsewhere. Only in retrospect, when we started to spread the net wider, did we start to get more engagement from editors, and willingness to consider pieces on their merits, rather than the byline.

One of the big difficulties with such an ambitious goal in a defined time is that some topics simply don’t fit the time available. In each of the past two years we have had a student who finds a promising topic, and worked very hard to develop a very good lead on it. Both obtained confidential documents, and developed potential whistle-blowers but were unable to finish the investigation in the time available, and decided not to continue with it after the course had finished. This was disappointing, both for the tutor and the students, who had high hopes of publication, reflecting the amount of energy they devoted to the project.

How have the students found it? Students were surveyed this year (2013), and asked to respond to eight open-ended questions. Of 18 responses, all but two “enjoyed” or “greatly” enjoyed the project, overwhelmingly because they were able to choose their own topic and follow it: “I enjoyed the project very much and consider it the highlight of my year.” “A great and satisfying experience” “I enjoyed it very much because it was an opportunity to write something of interest to me”. “It was very exciting and interesting … I was treated as a real journalist by sources, more than writing about community stories.” They liked being able to choose whether to pair up (“I would have destroyed someone if I had to work with them on this”).  Several mentioned, without prompting, that it had improved their “perseverance” or “persistence”: “You don’t need to be a detective to investigate something, you just need to be interested”. Other things learned included how to be flexible,  “realising that what you are writing can affect people’s lives”, how to write “an effective and powerful feature”, how to do FOA requests, research skills, planning, how to structure, time management, and the confidence to complete one: “That I can complete [one]… to know the length, depth, detail, required and get an idea of the time it takes”.   For some, people skills were paramount: they learned “empathy”, “the importance of contacting people more than once to build a relationship”, “how to get information out of unwilling interviewees”, “when to be assertive and when to be patient with interviewees”. Many felt it had helped their daily reporting: “Better investigation of day-to-day stories – not just reporting, but asking why,”and “how to add more flavour in writing”. Even those that did not produce a publishable article said they found it useful and enjoyable, and that the pressure of trying to get it to publishable standard was useful: “Knowing others will read it makes you strive for a better story”.

Those that did not enjoy it mentioned frustration due to “being confined to one topic, and working towards a deadline” and another felt “more techniques could have been taught”, and the “feedback loop could have been tightened up”. One said it was overall positive, but it was “up and down due to the ups and downs of the friendship with the person I was working with.”

An informal feedback session also raised some issues such as timing in relation to other parts of the course, and that it would be better to spread it through the year, and have more feature-writing practice, and more small-group meetings to share problems.

For the vast majority of students, it does seem to be positive, learning experience. Here are some responses from 2012:

“I really enjoyed doing this assignment and learnt a lot. It was really great to write about something I was so interested in and learn so much about a topic – I have numerous follow ups planned! It has definitely been the most difficult part of the course of far, but also the best in my humble opinion. It differed from my other work a lot – I was writing something that seemed useful and interesting and not even remotely fluffy. It kind of reminded me why I thought being a journalist was a good idea in the first place. I was surprised at how easy it was to get people to talk to me, and how everyone I spoke to though writing on this topic was really important. So most of all, I learnt a lot about people, how they’re willing to talk even in dire situations, and how showing interest, compassion and little of your own life helps people open up. “ (Julia – story published).

“Overall, the investigative feature required better organisation, more confidence in ourselves, and less fear to call people out over issues. All valuable lessons, we think.” A team – not published.

“I found it hard to know where to start. If I did it again, I would treat it less as a broad essay and more as a detective exercise. I think I have a better feel now for what makes something a potential investigative piece, so that if I find something out while looking into a news piece, I can make a mental note that it might be something to follow up in the future. It’s difficult to shift from the formal news tone to a more feature-ish style and also to work out what to do with all the info you have gathered.” – Selina – story published.

“We’ve learnt a lot about determination with this assignment. We’ve had a number of things that didn’t go our way so we’ve had to persevere and change what we were doing to make it work. We contacted a lot of people – many who didn’t get back to us, so we had to keep looking for new people to talk to.  We’ve found this type of reporting differs from other reporting because of the amount of information you end up collecting. Because you go so much more in depth into a topic than you would normally have time to do we’ve ended up with a lot of material and it was interesting, and hard, to sort through.” A team – not published.

“One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that people help you when helping you aligns with their priorities (i.e. getting a message out). I now approach people in a different way, more about them rather than my article, which seems to be slightly more successful – if I can get to speak with them in the first place. Another aspect I struggled with, and have learned from, was in choosing where to draw the line in what to include and what would just bog down the story.” – Olivia, story published.

“It was difficult finding  single thing to focus on, and I found that it was much harder having way too much information and trying to present it than having only just enough.  I found the most difficult bit was attempting to get academics and professionals to talk to me. Even when they said they would answer my questions they never got back to me.” Y, not published.


Teaching investigative journalism through a project-based, active, peer-based learning works well to build a broad range of skills, and usually confidence. It is more likely to put them into advanced learning situations, such as difficult interview situations, death knocks, Freedom of Information requests, finding and working with whistle-blowers, than other approaches. It is a more efficient use of teacher time, because it reduces lecture time, ensures that time is not wasted teaching them material they know (e.g. social media) and allows more time for one-on-one teaching. Giving students control of their topic and, to a degree, the process, encourages teamwork, brings joy, gives them control, and taps into their  idealism. Not all students are suited to it, or enjoy it. But overall, we have found that every year we have been pleasantly surprised by the originality of topics they find, and the extraordinary determination and canniness that the best ones can exhibit in prosecuting their project to a successful conclusion. However, on balance, it is better to aim high, and risk some students not enjoying the process, and allow the best to find limits way higher than they or the teachers had imagined possible.


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de Burgh, H. (2000). Investigative Journalism, Context and Practice. London: Routledge.

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Houston, B., Bruzzese, L., & Weinberg, S. (2002). The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook: A guide to documents, databases and techniques (4th ed.). Boston; New York: Bedford/ St. Martin’s.

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Schudson, M. (1978). Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers. New York: Basic Books.

Spark, D. (1999). Investigative reporting: A study in technique. Oxford: Focal Press.

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JHollingsDr James Hollings is a Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand. He is a former journalist, with a special interest in investigative reporting.

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