How the ABC Investigations team finds stories and how the public is helping – Investigative journalism
ABC Investigations conducted an extensive probe into the state of aged care in Australia, which is now the subject of a royal commission.
Head of the unit Jo Puccini explains the challenges they face getting a story up, the benefit of crowdsourced investigations and what makes a great investigative journalist.
How does ABC Investigations operate?
Director of News Gaven Morris set up Investigations as a way of having investigative journalism sit outside a particular program.
The aim is to find the story and then to present it to the audience in a way that will maximise its reach and impact.
Often Four Corners, for example, will have a great story but for various reasons (usually lack of visual material) it doesn’t make the grade for a 45-minute program.
That story could well sit on one of our other outlets.
So, we work with the traditional news and current affairs programs but we also plan our digital rollout from the very beginning.
At the moment we are in the middle of producing two Four Corners programs, a Background Briefing story, a couple of 7.30 stories, plus we have a few big news projects we are hoping to get under way in the new year.
How do you decide what stories to pursue and what’s involved in getting a story up?
We start a million stories on a whole range of subjects.
At the moment, I would say we are juggling about 20 stories and projects at once.
Our reporters also have areas of interest and expertise that guide the stories they chase.
We start and kill a lot of stories — I’d say about half.
That’s the difficulty with investigative journalism — you can’t confirm stories or people won’t talk to you, so you can’t get them across the line.
There is a lot of research involved, from company records to tender documents, phone calls and door knocks.
It takes time and if a story falls over it’s frustrating, especially when someone has put in weeks of work.
You need to ask yourself each day: is the impact this story will have worth the effort we need to put in?
If the answer is no, you are better off moving on to something else.
This kind of work can be very challenging for journalists.
They constantly deal with people who don’t want to talk to them or are in some kind of crisis.
Their stories are also more likely to attract internal review, external criticism and legal suits.
Journalists working in this field need a lot of support from their managers.
What was involved in producing the crowdsourced aged-care investigation?
A lot of work! People don’t really realise how time consuming it was.
I had wanted to do a crowdsourced investigation for quite some time after seeing the work of ProPublica in that space.
I really wanted to see how we could work with our audience in uncovering something, so I put the call out to the team for ideas.
Anne Connolly and Margot O’Neill had worked on aged care before and were frustrated that, while there had been a lot of reporting on the issue via individual cases or particular homes, the homes were always referred to as just a few “bad apples”.
We really wanted to find out how widespread the issues people raised were.
Once we decided on the topic the next question was how do we do it?
The fabulous Flip Prior, who has been driving audience engagement projects in News, introduced us to ProPublica, who were very helpful and generous with their advice.
Flip, supervising producer Fanou Filali and I then went about the survey design — we settled on the questions and then consulted a survey expert about how to design it.
We discovered that it’s an art in itself — too long and people won’t stay with you, too intrusive and people get scared.
We thought that was complicated but, probably luckily, we didn’t realise how much more complicated it was going to get!
When we launched the callout we did it through a very strong 7.30 story as well as across digital and social media, which helped us reach a big national audience.
7.30 had run a number of excellent stories on aged care in the past and were keen to keep this important subject in the public eye.
We brought on journalist Jo Tovey to help and it took Anne and Jo eight weeks just to do this aspect.
We then had a pitch to take to Four Corners and some other ideas for stories we could present on our digital platforms.
We really wanted to go to Four Corners because we knew we would have the most impact on that program and, luckily, executive producer Sally Neighbour was on board.
She’s absolutely passionate about the ABC’s obligation regarding public interest journalism, said yes right away and, in fact, suggested two episodes, which I have to confess we found rather daunting.
The collaboration with Four Corners was amazing. They worked extremely hard with Anne to make the two programs compelling viewing.
While Four Corners took over the production of the TV programs, we started a newsletter to keep our audience collaborators in the loop and planned the other news and digital coverage around it.
It was a huge endeavour, but we have learned a lot along the way and I think it will be much easier next time.
We now have a better tool we can use and have learned to be a bit narrower in our range of questions so we aren’t as overwhelmed.
We are also now in a position to brief other teams who want to do this kind of work and hopefully make it easier for themselves.
You don’t often get this close to your audience in an investigation, so it was a real privilege.
Anne Connolly is now working up some more stories that have come to us via the crowdsource and in response to the Four Corners programs.
We have asked people to help us with more information via our newsletter.
It is important that this issue remains front and centre in the lead up to the royal commission.
There are many many more issues to expose, so watch this space!
And we are thinking about our next crowdsourced investigation on another issue altogether. Gulp!
What makes a great investigative journalist?
I think a great investigative journalist has to be curious, dogged and hard working.
You also need a fair amount of toughness and resilience to take the constant knock backs and frustrations.
I have had the great fortune of working with many of our finest — Liz Jackson, Sally Neighbour, Chris Masters, Paul Barry and many others.
Each one of them has taught me something invaluable.
Young journalists ask me for advice all the time, particularly about how to find a story and how to develop it.
- Read widely every day — most investigative stories come from tidbits in other media.
- Contacts — talk to as many people as possible, in the schoolyard, at the shop, while making other stories. I believe every person has at least one good story to tell, you just have to talk to them long enough to find it. They often don’t even think it’s important. Treat your contacts as people not as someone you want something from. Keep those relationships going and treat them with respect. Don’t worry if you don’t have contacts at the top of an organisation. Those people are less likely to tell you about good stories because they have more to lose. And contacts who are in the middle ranks often rise over the years. Some of the people I have contact with for stories are people I have known for decades.
- Care about detail — the detail is often the “smoking gun” in a story. Find out the timeline: who spoke to who, when and why?
- Be sceptical about information that’s given to you — think about the motivations of the person giving it. Check and double check it.
- Work on your research toolkit — find out how to search for and read company records, court documents, social media.
- Be persistent, but polite — be willing to knock on doors and have them slammed in your face. Don’t ring the media person if you’re trying to find something out, ever. Go straight to the source. A media person’s job is to be a gatekeeper.
- Be open with your editors and legal department — they can help and guide you to publication and avoid nasty surprises later.
- And finally, look for mentors — try to find people to work with who you admire and who can teach you new skills, even if it means taking a backward step down the career ladder for a little while.
What is it about investigative journalism that appeals to you?
I love finding out things no-one knows about.
I feel privileged to be in the position of telling the public what we have found.
It’s the fundamental role of the media, to work for the public good.
I still get as excited about stories and journalism as ever.
I’ve always loved broadcast and now digital because you get to go on that journey with other people – reporters, crews, editors, digital storytellers.
Much as it can be frustrating, it’s a real joy.