Kunda Dixit of the Nepali Times shares the work behind his photography books on Nepal's civil war. Photo: Heino Ollin for GIJN
Journalism is sometimes defined as “history chronicled in a hurry.” Former Washington Post president and publisher, Philip L. Graham, famously labeled reporting as “the first rough draft of history.”
Historians have always used archival documents, including old newspapers, to understand what happened years, decades, or even centuries ago. But sometimes, it works the other way around: journalists are the ones digging into the past and disclosing previously unknown facts, events, archives, or testimony that are big enough to “rewrite history.” Or, at the very least, to cast a different light on what we think we know about an event or people.
During a session dedicated to the topic at the 13th Global Investigative Journalism Conference (#GIJC23), three journalists shared their tips after investigating historical events. The panelists included José María Irujo, editor-in-chief of investigation for El País, who followed the trail of Franco-era terrorists from Spain to Latin America and revealed a shocking history that many in Spain would like to have forgotten; correspondent Catherine Porter and her team at The New York Times, who put together the troubling story of how France inflicted crippling reparations on Haiti more than two centuries ago, which still saddles the country with the highest poverty levels in the Western Hemisphere; and Kunda Dixit, publisher of the Nepali Times, who detailed the work behind his trilogy of photographic books revealing the full scope of Nepal’s bloody civil war and the reaction they received by Nepalis nationwide.
Follow Your Instincts
Back in 2013, when Jose Maria Irujo and fellow El País investigative journalist Joaquín Gil started to investigate a series of crimes committed in Spain following the death of dictator General Francisco Franco in 1975, no editor had assigned them the story. The cases had been forgotten or closed by Spanish authorities and no media showed any interest to dig further. “The investigation was not the priority of our newspaper, it was the priority of two journalists who wanted accountability,” Irujo explained at GIJC23.
Working on their own relieved them of any lofty expectations. “We had no pressure because we did not tell our bosses. You need quietness to do this kind of crazy investigation,” he said. Though their groundbreaking exposé eventually became a front page story and one of El País’ most-read pieces, the pair were never able to focus on it exclusively. “We were working on other stories at the same time,” Irujo explained.
Simple Questions with No Answers Can Be a Start
“The New York Times’s Haiti ‘Ransom’ project was not supposed to be an investigation,” Catherine Porter said during the GIJC23 session. “The idea started when my boss asked me, after the country’s devastating 2021 earthquake, why Haiti suffers from so many systemic problems.” When she tried to figure out how much the country had paid in debt for the past two centuries, to whom, and when the payments ended, she could not find any clear answers. That is how the one-year investigation began, as she tried to unravel — thanks to historians, archives, and books — the amount and the consequences of the massive “ransom” paid by Haitians to France for their freedom. Haiti officially made its last payments on the debt in 1888, but The New York Times found out that the payments related to Haiti’s debt actually continued until 1957.
Dig Into Archives
To investigate events from the past, Irujo advised to “be clear about your objective” and to “know what to look for.” He and his colleague made the most of the available resources at El País. “Our newspaper has a very big archive,” he explained. Reviewing El País and other newspapers dating back to the 1970s and 1980s, and looking in thousands and thousands of folders, he and his reporting partner were able to find the names behind right-wing terrorist attacks. That is how they were able to set up a list of fugitives to track in Latin America.
“For any investigation lasting for more than one year and involving a lot of documents and data used by several journalists working far apart in different countries, you need organization,” Porter noted. Instead of using an Excel spreadsheet, she strongly recommends using the project software Workflowy. WhatsApp groups, shared Google Drive folders, and regular meetings were also useful to her team. “When you do research, you think: ‘Of course, I will remember this’ and then, one year later, you don’t. When you are writing, any detail can be significant,” she said. The reporting process must, above all, have “discipline,” she emphasized.
Historians, Heritage ‘Junkies,’ and Collectors Are Your Best Friends
When digging into historical events, you must recognize that many people may have worked on the same topic before you. Take advantage of this. “Historians were wonderful in terms of offering their own archives, their own pictures of archives, who else we should talk to, and other sources in terms of books,” Porter said. “These junkies, who are basically unpaid journalists fascinated by history, have a lot of stuff.”
She explained that the contribution of one of these sources was decisive in her Haiti investigation. “He gave us the initial account dating from 1825 of the Baron of Mackau, who was sent by King of France Charles X to deliver the ultimatum to the Haitian government,” she recalled. Had Haiti not accepted the king’s terms — to pay France 150 million francs, and an enormous reduction in custom taxes on French goods — the baron had orders to declare Haiti an “enemy of France” and blockade its ports.
Don’t Forget the Human Side
When you work on history, you might want to focus on facts and events. Yet, all the speakers at the GIJC23 session stressed the need to make room in your story for people: victims, survivors, relatives, and descendants. Not only can they bring you tips and information but they will definitely contribute to show the human impact of your investigation.
“It was important to talk to lawyers and relatives of victims of the terrorist attacks because they wanted to help us. The same with the former police officers who investigated the cases,” Irujo said. And keeping an eye on family and friends of the criminals, on social media, for instance, was sometimes useful as a way to track connections back to the subject.
Traveling to Latin America get first-hand proof of where the terrorists lived was a way to hold them accountable. “We went only once we were sure to find them,” Irujo said. “We are a very small team so there was no excuse to spend money on a stupid trip for nothing.” In doing so, they were able to get actual pictures of criminals whose faces had not been seen in a newspaper for decades.
Bulletproof Your Story
Fact-checking investigations is crucial, but it is even more important in historical reporting. The further back in the past the facts and testimony in your story, the more cautious you should be before accepting them as reliable. “You better get it right,” warned Porter. “For the ransom project, each fact had double sources and we fact-checked everything twice.” Because the Times invested heavily in the project, the story was fact-checked by no less than 16 historians. In addition, 20 people reviewed the financial calculation of the ransom, which was the very core of the story. Last but not least, one of the final stages of the work was actually a return to the experts to “bulletproof everything.”
You want these long-gestating historical investigations to be read by as many people as possible. That’s why, Irujo, said their story was published in three different formats: in the newspaper, on the paper’s website with a video including phone conversations with the murderers, and as part of a special, 15-minute video documentary.
Porter’s massive Haiti investigation was so long, it could basically have been a book, she said. In the end, it was published in four parts and also included historical documents and paintings, a bibliography, as well as pictures from today’s Haiti. To avoid turning off readers who weren’t willing to read the entire piece, The Times also created an article summarizing the main findings. And to have even more reach, the investigation was also translated into French and a free, Kreyòl edition so that Haitians could read it.
Watch the full GIJC23 panel video below.