Addressing a full classroom of over 50 journalists and students, Cheryl Thompson, a journalist from the Washington Post, shared her insights into investigative journalism at the Power Reporting conference in Johannesburg today. Anelisa Tuswa, a student journalist, shares her five takeaways from the talk.

Thompson, also an associate professor of journalism at George Washington University, used anecdotes from her own work to outline the key lessons she’s learned over the course of her career.


HARD-HITTING: Cheryl W. Thompson of the Washington Post, shared her insights into developing an investigative story at the 2015 Power Reporting Conference at Wits University today. Photo: Samantha Camara.

Outlining steps into the investigation process, Thompson described investigative journalism as “jigsaw puzzle”,  where all the pieces in the puzzle matter.

Briefly, Thompson says the key steps are deciding on a topic, researching the topic, developing your sources,  analysing your data,  fact-check and writing, rewriting and writing some more.

5 Key lessons to learn:
  1. “Always ask questions that you already know the answer to”

The emphasis on well researched investigation remains key in all parts of Thompsons presentation. As a result, Thompson believes that when you are preparing for an interview, you’re must “be mentally prepared” and that includes well researched questions.

  1. “Never sacrifice speed to file for accuracy

It might take you a couple of years to complete an investigative piece, but rather you spend years in it than to rush for a timeline that is less researched and lacks accuracy.

  1. Confrontational Questions? Keep those for later

According to Thompson, questions like “why did you steal the money” should be at the bottom of your list. She says to start with questions that allow your interviewees “ease into the interview'”, added Thompson. “Try to find a commonality or connection with your interviewee”.

  1. “Don’t pick up the phone for interviews, go there in person”

Thompson notes that on one of her investigative pieces that she was working on there were “ghost children in a ghost school” and she only figured this out by actually visiting the schools.

  1. Trust your intuition

“I trust my instincts, especially as a woman”, said Thompson, addressing safety and security issues related to investigative journalism.