At what point should an editor pull a reporter from their normal beat to pursue a long-term investigative project? What verified information do they need before signing off on the cost of air travel or signing on to an agreement with another newsroom on an exposé?
Committing to a long-term investigation — also known as “greenlighting” — does not always involve a specific moment of decision by an editor, but it always involves risk, and trusted information to back a hypothesis. Risks can include financial or time costs, trusting the credibility of sources or whistleblowers, jeopardizing the safety of reporters, and the possibility that a rival newsroom could “scoop” the project with a smaller, earlier news story on the topic.
At the recent IRE23 conference in the US — the annual watchdog journalism summit hosted by Investigative Reporters and Editors — GIJN spoke with five veteran investigative editors in the hallways to ask them what information they need before giving the go-ahead to a project. Conversely, we also asked about reasons that would prompt them to end an investigation before it’s published. Call that “redlighting.”
Common responses from the editors followed a formula. First, they typically want see a “nut graph” or succinct summary of what, ideally, the eventual story would say or cover. Also they look for pre-reporting that includes one credible source, initial verification of the claim, and reasons that the story would have impact. Important note: Previous or less detailed stories on the same topic by a rival media outlet is not necessarily a reason to reject a pitch.
‘Minimum’ and ‘Maximum’ Stories
Sometimes, however, an editor will greenlight a story based on trust in a journalist’s deep knowledge of an institution or beat.
For instance, Andrew Lehren, senior editor at NBC News Investigations in the US, says that, on rare occasions, editors might approve speculative pitches with no tip or new data at all if a well-sourced reporter says: “I bet X is happening, causing harm to Y.” One such example was his own 2020 investigation into money laundering by North Korea — a heavily sanctioned state — via New York banks, which was approved purely on Lehren’s hunch. However, Lehren warned that these types of investigations are mostly rejected and rarely if ever receive financial backing. So reporters should instead offer a couple of sure-fire, “deliverable” stories to report in parallel when pitching fliers.
Most editors indicated that they rarely end, or redlight, an investigation completely, even if the primary goal didn’t pan out. Spiking a story tends to happen only when previously undisclosed, problematic information about a primary source emerges, or, in rare cases, the reporting team discovers evidence of fabricated data or deceit. Instead, editors envisage “minimum” and “maximum” stories that could result from the project. A so-called maximum story might directly expose a named official’s secret involvement in a harmful or corrupt practice, leading to a dismissal or prosecution, while a minimum version might be unable to name culprits and only link a practice to harm suffered by named victims. Editors emphasize that there is still value in publishing minimum stories — including the fact that they often surface whistleblowers — but say transparency is crucial: make sure to explicitly tell audiences what can and cannot be proven.
Turning a Red Light to Green
Investigative editors at the Associated Press (AP) faced a classic greenlighting quandary in February, when their West Africa correspondent, Sam Mednick, pitched a project to investigate whether government troops were responsible for the murders of seven boys in Burkina Faso. That country’s government denied that their soldiers had been involved. Mednick, who was based in Senegal, had seen a graphic, 83-second video on social media showing men in military fatigues killing the last of the children — a clip that also showed some local buildings, military boots, and vehicles, but little else. While recognizing that the story was important, editors initially declined Mednick’s request to travel from Senegal to Burkina Faso, according to AP global investigative reporter Michael Biesecker, due to concerns about the challenges of corroborating the video in a dangerous environment.
Biesecker says the investigation then got a new lease on life in the way many do at AP: “Because we just keep talking about potential stories.” He explains that Ron Nixon, the head of global investigations at AP, watched the shocking clip later and suggested that Biesecker use his visual forensic skills to try to verify the video and identify the military unit — from his desk in the US — to give Mednick’s pitch a second chance.
Within a day, Biesecker told Mednick’s editors that he had verified the following:
- The location of the massacre, near an unlabelled military base, about two kilometers (one mile) north of the regional capital of Ouahigouya. Biesecker used Google Earth and, later, higher resolution Maxar satellite imagery for the geolocation.
- The soldiers’ boots matched a brand of German-made boots issued to the Burkina Faso military by the European Union.
- The time of day of the killing — between 11am and noon — using shadow analysis via the SunCalc tool.
- A Pentagon press release from 2011 that described Mercedes trucks donated to the Burkina Faso government — a brand of trucks that are rare in the region, and which precisely matched the trucks in the video.
Armed with this corroboration of the initial evidence, AP editors now gave the green light, authorizing Mednick to travel to Burkina Faso, and committing resources, including Biesecker’s time, to the investigation. Once there, Mednick was able to track down the mother and uncle of one of the victims, and tell his story.
Later, the team would also unearth an internal government document, in which — the day after the killings — a senior Burkinabe Army officer warned troops not to post videos like the massacre clip on social media. Biesecker explains that visual forensic verification like this is just one of several elements that could restart a stalled story, including a trusted human source, patterns from data, and input from collaborative partners.
Factors to Help Greenlight an Investigative Pitch
Verification and Breaking News
“Quite a bit of pre-reporting is needed; it’s not just about some tip,” says Hoda Osman, executive editor at Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ). “Especially in our part of the world, you have to evaluate safety and the likelihood of corroborating evidence. Reporters might have a great premise, that seems valid and has documentation, but there are two big factors for editors: one, are you able to actually prove the case, with very difficult-to-access information in the region, and, two, is it going to get the reporter killed or arrested?”
Osman says investigative projects in the MENA region can quickly devolve into feature stories without independent second sources, and that exclusivity or novelty remain important news values for local audiences.
“You have to check to what degree the revelation has been made before, and how that story was done — and whether the new information you have could really move the story forward,” she explains. “No matter how compelling your sources are, if you are not actually revealing new information as a journalist, you can’t really succeed with an investigation.”
Plan of Attack
“Ideally, as an editor, you want to see a thesis — or a nut graph of what the story might find; minimum and maximum story options, and a reporting memo,” says Lehren, who is also an adjunct professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. “The memo — just an email, really — is where the reporter outlines the kind of sources and especially documents they already have, and estimates the time and resources it would involve. If they say they’re hoping to get a FOIA document in a week, I’d say ‘Let’s wait till you get the FOIA before we greenlight anything.’”
As an example of the kind of information that typically gets a story idea approved, Lehren described the pitch package he offered to investigate abuses by private military contractors in Iraq. The thesis he offered said roughly the following: “Private military contractors in Iraq have killed and injured far more Iraqi civilians than anyone has guessed.” In his reporting memo to editors, Lehren said he had already found several lethal incidents involving these companies within the leaked Iraq War Logs — and that it would take “about a week” to build a database of all the military contractors. The memo explained that he would then test those names against the War Logs and other data, and then take a little more time to verify, and pursue human sources.
“I tell my students: ‘Before I greenlight a pitch, you need to begin to substantiate your thesis.’ Maybe they’ve seen facts from a federal court case no one else has noticed; maybe it’s corroboration from NGO documents or SEC filings,” he says.
Trust Your Instincts
“For TV, greenlighting is probably once you start shooting — so the reporter must have done the basic research; to have run down the tip,” says Jodie Fleischer, managing editor for investigative content at Cox Media Group. “Stopping a project is often a feeling: if leads are drying up; if your team isn’t feeling as confident; if a key source has dropped out or says ‘Circumstances have changed, and I can’t do it anymore.’ Even when story managers feel good, doubt can come from the reporters, and I respect that. If they say ‘I don’t feel good about this,’ I take their word for it, and we’ll likely take it off the grid.”
Fleischer adds: “Reporters are generally not annoyed when you pull the plug, because they don’t want to report something that isn’t fully cooked.” However, she says earlier stories by other media are a minor consideration, provided the story digs deeper, and matters to her audience.
Know Your Sources — and Audience
“You need to first kick the tires on a claim — do your due diligence; show that your story is solid,” says Cindy Galli, executive producer at the ABC News Investigative Unit. “You can take days, weeks, even months to make sure you have a viable investigation, because I’m not going to spend time and money, and take teams off of other stuff, to pursue something thin. I need to know that you’ve vetted your key source.”
Galli says the meaning behind greenlighting a story can vary by news outlet. “I may say it means when you allocate money for a project, another editor might say it’s after you’ve had the legal department kick the tires on it,” she explains. “But you want to know your audience will care about the story, so if you can’t find that nexus of evidence and why your audience will be interested, then you’re not going to invest in it.”
Galli says the existence of prior stories by other outlets on the same issue should not automatically stall a pitch. “I have seen good stories killed because someone else has done a lesser story on the topic,” she says. “But if you can do it better, or more in-depth, or have elements someone else didn’t have, I think you can still stick with that. We also have different audiences, and there is a lot of brand loyalty, so my local news viewers might not be aware of an issue that affects them.”
Galli reveals that, increasingly, greenlighting can involve consensus between newsrooms, rather than evidence pitched by a single reporter. “Collaboration is the future of investigative reporting,” she concludes.
Rowan Philp is a senior reporter for GIJN. Rowan was formerly chief reporter for South Africa’s Sunday Times. As a foreign correspondent, he has reported on news, politics, corruption, and conflict from more than two dozen countries around the world.