View all newsletters
Sign up for our free email newsletters

Fighting for quality news media in the digital age.

  1. Comment
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.

Content from our partners
Publishing on the open web is broken, how generative AI could help fix it
Impress: Regulation, arbitration and complaints resolution
Papermule: Workflow automation for publishers

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

Topics in this article : ,

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
  • Business owner/co-owner
  • CEO
  • COO
  • CFO
  • CTO
  • Chairperson
  • Non-Exec Director
  • Other C-Suite
  • Managing Director
  • President/Partner
  • Senior Executive/SVP or Corporate VP or equivalent
  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
  • Non-manager
  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
Thank you

Thanks for subscribing.

Websites in our network