Paul Radu: Good investigative stories bring changes
Paul Cristian Radu, Romanian investigative reporter, taught in NetNovinar’s educational program Stories on the Theme of Organized Crime (8-11 May, 2007, Mediacentar Sarajevo). We talked to Radu about the challenges of investigative reporting, the importance of databases in investigations, and the characteristics of a good investigative story.
Paul Cristian Radu is a trainer in investigative reporting and co-founder of the Bucharest-based Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism. In May 2007, at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Toronto, with a team of Balkan journalists he won the Global Shining Light Award for Power Brokers, a series of stories on the causes of an energy crisis that caused power outages in several Balkan countries. That is one of his numerous awards. Among others, with a team of journalists from The Center for Public Integrity, in 2005 he won the Online Investigative Journalism Prize awarded by The Society of Professional Journalists. He worked as coordinator on several investigative projects for the London-based Institute for War & Peace Reporting. Radu is an expert in database search for work on news stories.
When a journalist decides to start writing an investigative story, what’s the first step he or she should take?First of all, journalists must assess what the story is. There can be many sources of an investigative story. A journalist may start investigating because he or she observed something first-hand. This is how the investigative team of journalists I work with started investigating the power market in the Balkans, because we observed that electricity rates for households were constantly rising and we decided to investigate what was behind it.Sometimes you might start from citizens’ information, maybe someone complained about something. Sometimes it’s an ordinary article in the newspaper; you decide to investigate more deeply what you read in the article. This means that the idea is primarily to assess what the story is and what the story’s potentials are. It’s also important to assess how relevant the story is for the public. Sometimes it may happen that the story is interesting for the journalist, but what’s important is that it’s also interesting for the public, that it affects the public and that it can help your readers make decisions. It’s also important to assess what is the minimum you can get after starting to work on the story. It’s important to examine what kind of resources you can use in the investigation. These are the first steps you should take before working on an investigative story.
What are the qualities of a good investigative story for you as an experienced investigative reporter?First of all, the main reason for investigating an issue is the final result that helps people resolve certain dilemmas. The idea is that the story should change something, for example, influence the government and force those responsible to take certain measures and correct wrongdoing, as well as help people make the right decisions. I will give you an example of something that’s very important for investigation. There is a lot of financial fraud in the Balkans, people who set up mutual funds and lure people to invest in their companies. It’s very important for investigative reporters to give attention to this kind of shady dealing and to warn people not to invest their money in certain companies so they wouldn’t lose it. It’s important to have public interest. That’s one of the main elements of an investigative story.It’s also important to explain to people how you did the story, so they can see there is nothing hiding behind the story itself, there are no interest groups involved in its publishing, and the journalist did not do the story for some kind of interest or business group, but only for public interest. This is all the more reason to support your story with documents the whole time so that people realize it’s all true. This is especially important in Eastern Europe, where both newspapers and journalists can be corrupt.
You are an expert in the field of database search. How can a database help journalists in investigative work?Databases and cross-referencing them helps investigative reporters follow the trail of money. This is, for example, a holy rule in investigative reporting: following the trail of money. Through databases you can follow the trail of money in the international market, you can follow business, you can investigate “dirty investments,” you can spot if people from the ruling structures are using foreign companies to take part in false bids, false privatizations. Databases also offer journalists court verdicts, as well as a multitude of data which can be cross-referenced and as such can help the journalist round off the investigation. Of course, along with field work.
What qualities make a good investigative reporter?I think a good investigative reporter is one who knows what investigative tools to use to do their job as best as they can. It’s also a reporter who learns each time they meet with other reporters. The idea is not to satisfy yourself with the skills you already have at any point in time, because we live in a world that makes technological advances every day and it’s very important to have access to new search tools and to learn from colleagues. I also think an investigative reporter should be independent. Recently published research results of a study from Harvard showed that investigative reporters in the world are turning more and more to non-government organizations, and also to organizations such as Mediacentar and others, the reason being that their own media outlets may not be interested in investigative reporting or may be owned by persons with different interests.
How do you recognize a good investigative story?In principle, it should be a story that speaks for itself, a story that provides full insight into what the journalist wanted to tell the public, a story supported by documents, a story with no place for rumors, and a story which ultimately brings some changes.A good investigative story may have impact years after its publication, especially if it is posted online and available in different languages. My investigative team has examples of stories published 5 years ago about people involved in organized crime and these stories still have impact. There are still people who read these stories because the main protagonists are still active and trying to get into new businesses. Potential business partners can simply do a search of their names on the Internet and find our stories and read them, after which they won’t go into business with these people. That’s the value of an investigative story posted online.
What is the biggest challenge in investigative reporting for you?Cooperation and exchange of investigative skills with other reporters is the biggest challenges for me. It’s a challenge to expand the investigative reporting network, increasing the flow the information. It’s also important, of course, while working on the story, that the reporter tries to strike a balance and not get too involved in the whole story. I sometimes got too involved in my stories. Afterwards I assessed the situation and realized that. It’s very hard to maintain the balance and keep aside while working on the story. Of course, sometimes you are mad while investigating something, but it’s important, for the sake of accuracy and credibility, as well as readers, not to be an activist who wants to change something, but rather an investigative journalist.
How can journalists who work on an investigative story for a long time keep up their motivation?It’s about sometimes having to accept defeat. It’s happened to me too that I thought I had a good issue and was working on it, but in the end it turned out there was nothing there, for different reasons. You should work on several stories at the same time and thus keep up your motivation. And you should always be willing to accept defeat. If you force a story, it won’t be good.
And if you can’t reach certain sources?You should always look for alternative sources and learn from others. That’s why I always say that everything has already been done, when it comes to some issues. Some reporters, for example, will decide to investigate the illegal business of music CD piracy. Many reporters in many countries have already done this same story many times. The idea is for reporters to learn from other reporters how they did the story and to try to apply it to their own country, if possible. That’s one of the skills that any investigative reporter should have. In our region it often happens that state officials don’t want to cooperate with investigative reporters and give them the information they need. In such cases there are always alternative sources of information and skills used to reach them.