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March 17, 2008

How to run an investigation at your student newspaper

A darkly dressed reporter hiding in alleyways was once my mental image of investigative journalism. They would discreetly take notes before slipping off alone into the night.

But things were different when I went undercover for Pluto, the University of Central Lancashire student newspaper, to expose a student who was selling plagiarised essays. The editor of Pluto, Ed Walker, was telling university directors and the students’ union president what was happening every day.

Without their support, we risked being expelled.

Consider this if you are thinking about investigative reporting with your student paper, because it will probably involve breaking some rules.

William Stead did this in 1885 when he exposed the child sex trade in Victorian London. Mark Daly did it in 2003 when exposing racism in the police force for the BBC1 documentary The Secret Policeman.

Joining the company and receiving money for essays meant that I was breaking university rules. But by getting the university on side we were guaranteeing my safety.

They also made the investigation a bit easier by providing a fake email address, a library card and security guards when we met “Jimmy”, the student running the scam.

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There was pressure to succeed with more people involved. Thankfully, Ed Walker and I spent a lot of time planning different situations.

A touch of paranoia about “Jimmy” rumbling us ensured we took extra care. Immediately Ed started locking his office door whenever he left. He began drawing the blinds to hide a white board which we were using as an investigation timeline. At one point we even came up with a code name for the investigation, but stopped short of buying two way radios and James Bond style watches.

As Ed worked behind the scenes, I was communicating with Jimmy by email. This written correspondence was brilliant evidence for proving what had been going on – both for the university’s disciplinary hearing and, if necessary, court proceedings. Keeping a diary with transcribed phone calls was useful when I started writing the story.

The investigation took three weeks, but it felt much longer. There is a lot of stress doing large projects – especially when you are studying for a degree too. The endurance of the Channel 4 Dispatches reporters who posed as air hostesses in the documentary Ryanair Caught Napping is impressive.

As soon as we had enough evidence we ran the story. BBC North West Tonight followed it up on TV, the Preston Citizen splashed it and the Lancashire Evening Post used it.

Interestingly, there was speculation on Chinese internet forums about how we discovered the scam, which was being run by a student from China. But like all good journalists, I’m not revealing my sources!

Ricki Dewsbury is a student at UCLan and author of the News Blog

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