Cheryl W. Thompson of The Washington Post explains the fundamentals of investigative journalism at this year’s Global Investigative Journalism Conference.

By Eric Deyo

Persistence is the most crucial quality to investigative journalism according to investigative journalist for The Washington Post and academic, Cheryl W. Thompson.

Thompson was addressing delegates at the 10th Global Investigative Journalism Conference (GIJC), the world’s largest international gathering of data and investigative journalists, being held for the first time in South Africa.

“It’s not easy being an investigative journalist in many parts of this world”, said Thompson to a packed auditorium at Wits University in Johannesburg. “Sometimes you just have to be persistent.”

In a presentation titled “The ABCs of Investigative Journalism,” Thompson ran through the fundamentals of a hard-hitting investigation emphasising that the basics are crucial to a successful hard news story.

These fundamentals include finding good story ideas, gathering the necessary documents through research, cultivating quality sources, and creating spreadsheets. In gathering the necessary documents, Thompson said she develops her own data sets, and oftentimes this starts with a simple Google search to get started. “Start with Google,” she said.

For primary sources, Thompson concedes that it can be a challenge to find reliable, quality sources who are willing to provide information. “Sometimes it’s not easy to get people to want to talk,” Thompson explained. “So when somebody tells you to come, you sort of like, pack your bags, and you go there. Never give them a chance to change their mind.”

Organisation is another important quality for Thompson, because there are so many moving parts in investigative journalism.

Thompson reflected one of her stories which focused on a witness who was killed for cooperating with the police. She managed to secure an interview with the mother of the victim which took place over the phone for 90 minutes. When Thompson tried to pull up the interview the next day, she realised she forgotten to save it, and the interview was gone.

“Save everything!” implored Thompson. “That’s the lesson I had learned from that one.”