Get organised with project management

The chaos of a typical newsroom is ample evidence that many journalists have a cavalier attitude to organisation.

But according to Luuk Senger, a Danish freelance investigative journalist, speaking at City University’s recent Investigative Journalism Summer School, following a few project management tips can both help you to get better stories and improve your writing.

First, decide on a research hypothesis. ‘Try to picture your future unveiling story – and work from that,’says Senger.

Second, be precise. ‘Carefully examine the words you use. If, for example, you use the word ‘house’ in your hypothesis, I will ask: is it a villa, or a penthouse? Is it a crofter’s house or an apartment?”

Third, be objective. ‘Leave out words that express feelings or opinions.’

He adds: ‘Consider your plan of attack. It will save you a lot of time later in the investigation. You will ask yourself a set of very important questions about your investigation that one day will be asked anyway – by your editor, before your story is printed or aired, or by your readers or viewers afterwards.”

For an investigation of his own, Senger came up with the following hypothesis:

1. A pipe manufacturer chooses dangerous chemicals to put in its products above safer alternatives, because they are cheaper.

2. The chemicals leak into drinking water undetected; the government uses a detection technique unable to spot dangerous chemicals.

3. The chemicals disrupt the human hormone system. Some humans with a disrupted hormone system become infertile and/or develop cancer.”

Before drawing up the hypothesis, Senger recommends scouting the subject, noting:

The timeline: Draw up a timeline of ‘all the important events, actions, gatherings and influential publications that took place concerning the issue at hand.’A timeline, or chronology, gives you instant insight; it is also useful when writing or telling your story chronologically, and it contains logic: it shows connections between events and between people. When something does not add up in this logic (for example, people being at two places at the same time), then it will show.

Procedures: Note all procedural matters, plans, laws and regulations in one list. ‘This will give you a clear idea of how matters should commence. In theory… Compare this with prac?tice and the conflicts start to pop up like mushrooms after a rainy night,’warns Senger.

Practice: ‘What problems have others already noticed? Compare these stories from everyday practice with the plans, laws and procedures on paper and spot the differences.’

Money trail: To be able to ‘follow the money”, you will find it useful to have a list of all money transactions, however small or insignificant they might initially seem.

Now comes the search for evidence. Senger draws a distinction between ‘reporting for facts’and ‘reporting for story”: the nuts-and-bolts side of reporting versus the colour.

On reporting for facts, Senger lists the following sources in order of importance:

• Documents (such as written orders or instructions, small print in law texts, unpublished inspection reports, filed complaints, internal evaluations or analyses, questionnaires)

• Data (unique data about the scale, frequency, or important relations)

• Experts (interviews with experts)

• Literature and research, PR material and media clippings.

Suggested sources for reporting for story:

• Interviewing witnesses (these can be victims, perpetrators or bystanders)

• Stories from primary (unpublished) documents: diaries, logs, letters, court hearings official complaints and inspection reports

• Your own reporting

• Stories from newspapers (as long as you give credit to the original story)

• Conjecture: ‘What would happen if…'(not the best option, but as a last resort).

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