All NEWS articles are supposed to be investigative in nature. A news article should answer the most salient questions that people may think of. But time constraint and limited space make the news a bit nugget or bullet that lacks depth and essentials.
In my long years in the field as a news reporter, i have developed my own style and approach in conducting an IR (Investigative Report). That raw skills were based on intuition and lots of common sense! My curiosity on anything that i’d chanced upon led me to develop good stories.
My investigative skills were further honed when i attended two of the seminar-workshops by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), an authority in the field of investigative journalism in the Philippines. During the seminar, I was introduced to the formalities of IR and the rigid requirements necessary to avoid legal complications like libel in the future.
In this article, i am sharing some of the notes in the PCIJ seminar-workshops and few real examples of stories that i had pursued since the early days of my career.
THE INVESTIGATIVE TRAILS
Every IR needs a plan. A formal story conference or a casual talk with your News Editor may lead you to develop a good IR. Most News Editors are experienced reporters and probably were investigative reporters.
The PCIJ presented three trails in conducting an IR: Paper Trail, Human Trail, and Electronic Trail. The Paper Trail involves the painstaking search for documents. The Human Trail engages the investigative reporter in “catch-me-if-you-can” interviews of elusive sources. The Electronic Trail now includes the web surfing and won’t just left you scouring for data in the servers of libraries and offices. All of these trails are challenging and require lots of patience.
THE PAPER TRAIL
It is a documentary research. It involves acquiring copies, whether original or certified reproduced copies of public and private documents. There are times, an IR is done without conducting interviews and getting online for more information but involving papers only. Documents can tell all.
Documents can be classified into: Primary (unpublished) and Secondary (previously published) documents.
Published document, as secondary source, can be easily obtained because it is publicly available–meaning it has been possessed by several individuals. A few strides are just needed to secure these documents. It includes newspapers, directories, corporate financial report, yearbook, etc.
Information in the newspapers can be used as background data like a previously-issued statement of your subject. Telephone directories are good sources in locating and emphasizing addresses. Claims of financial standing by a corporation can be counter-check in the corporate financial report filed at the Securities and Exchange Commission. A yearbook could be a good source in establishing relationships among your subjects.
In short, secondary sources are intended to help you know:
□ the subject
□ the law/procedures
□ the structures and processes
and how to deal with your subject matter.
On the other hand, primary source documents which are mostly unpublished are both public and non-public (private) documents. It needs time to secure these documents as there are bureaucracies involved. A simple request for copies of the minutes of the traffic board meeting may require prior approval from the chair of the board or securing copies of the minutes of the legislative council session needs to pass through the office of the presiding officer. However, all the intricacies are within our limits and doable.
It is important to know where to secure these documents. Here’s a guide:
| PUBLIC DOCUMENTS
|| SAMPLE DOCUMENTS
|| WHERE TO REQUEST/SECURE
||Financial Statements of private and public corporations
||Securities and Exchange CommissionPhilippine Stock ExchangeCorporate Offices and company websites
||Land Titles, Tax Declaration papers
||Bureau of Lands, Registry of DeedsAssessor’s Office
|Statement of Assets, Liabilities & Net Worth
||SALN of government officials and employees
||Office of the Ombudsman, LGUs (Office of the Mayor or Office of the City Secretary)
||Information, Complaints, Petitions, Memorandum, Court Session records
||Clerk of Court, Receiving Clerk, Criminal Record Section, Court Administrator
||Annual Audit report, Special Projects Audit
||Commission on AuditConcerned government offices/LGUs
||General AppropriationsAct, Annual Local Budget
||Congress, Department of Budget and Management, LGUs (Mayor’s Office, SP)
||Project ContractsConsultancy Contracts
||Contractors, Gov’t. Offices (DPWH, LGUs, etc.)
|Election and Campaign Records
||Election Contribution and Expenditures
The documents above are all considered PUBLIC and can be obtained without the necessity to ask for a court order or consent from the concerned individual or offices.
While the documents in the next table are all NON-PUBLIC or PRIVATE in nature but these can be found in government and private offices. Securing these documents needs the consent of the concerned individual or offices. In other cases like involving investigations on graft and illegal transactions, court order can be secured to permit the release of these documents.
| NON-PUBLIC DOCUMENTS
|| SAMPLE DOCUMENTS
|| WHERE TO REQUEST/SECURE
||Pending cases at the OmbudsmanJuvenile Court RecordsOn-going police investigations
||Office of the Ombudsman (National and Regional Offices)Family/Children CourtsPolice Investigators
||Classified/Top Secret files
||NBI, CIDG, Police Intelligence Offices
||Bank Statements, deposit/withdrawal slips
||Private Banks, Central Bank, Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLA)
|Income Tax Records
||Income Tax ReturnsCertificate of Withholding Taxes
||Bureau of Internal RevenuePrivate lending firms (credit & others)
||Credit background investigation reports
||Private lending firms
||Diagnosis, Patients Medical Records
||Private Clinics, Hospitals, Health Centers
|Other Personal Records
||Birth Certificate201 filePay Slips
||NSO, Civil Registrar, HospitalsPublic & Private HRDPublic & Private HRD/Accounting Office
The hardest part in news gathering is when you’re denied of a copy of a document or at the least be given a run around by the office where you wish to get the document. They keep on telling you to come back because their boss is not around until finally your patience lapsed and retreat from securing the needed document. That should not be the case.
Here are some tips,
Even in the absence of the Freedom of Information law, the Constitution guarantees our right to access of information, especially of matters involving public records. Assert that right. You may send letters demanding the document and assert your right under the law.
Don’t let procrastination ruled over you if you can get it today. Patience is an utmost requirement in IR. Follow-up your request.
You may ask the intercession of the Ombudsman to act on your behalf if your request is given dismal treatment from a government office.
Finally, the office is not the end of the road. There might be other office or person who have copies of the document. If COA refuses to furnish you their audit report for an LGU, you can get a copy from the LGU itself or any member of the Sangguniang Panlungsod.
The PCIJ study stated some reasons why access to information sometimes hurdles some difficulties.
Words of caution: A document may lie. Verify it before using it.
There were instances in the past when journalists were made to believe the document is authentic. During the 2010 Presidential elections, ABS-CBN made an exclusive story of a supposed medical record of then presidential candidate Senator, now President Benigno Aquino.
The document stated that Mr. Aquino had been treated for mental illness in one of the hospitals in Manila in the past. The broadcast report also presented the side of the camp of Aquino which denied the content of the document.
The reporter was able to establish that the document is fake or fabricated. But still, the story went on-air despite the prior knowledge of the reporter that the health record is not genuine. Any journalist who encounter the same situation should have not use the document in the first place. It was fed to the media to promote lies and in the end, it manipulated the media. If you think you are provided with a fake document to attack another person, stop there. Don’t allow yourself to become a vehicle of lies.
Documents coming from unofficial source should be verified with the office or agency where it is supposed to come from. Documents can be fabricated and shall be made to appear the content is genuine. If the document is a photo-copy, look for the original or a certified-photo copy of the document. Have it check by any competent official to determine its authenticity.
THE HUMAN TRAIL
This involves interviews of not one but many sources. An IR needs several persons to talk about the topic. The many, the merrier–as the saying goes. But don’t go for an interview just for the sake of interviewing people and choose later which one gives you the nice answer.
Select your interviewees. Plan every interview–who are you going to talk with and what are the questions you shall raise during the interview. List down the people you’re about to interview.
CONFIDENTIALITY OF SOURCES
Not all IRs have unnamed or confidential sources but most investigative stories, especially on TV are featuring interviewees with covered faces and altered voices to hide their identities. News outfits have came out with rules governing confidential sources to protect the integrity of the organization.
Here’s a quick guide prior to conducting interviews with confidential sources:
Make sure sources understand the basic ground rules concerning on-the-record, off-the-record, on background, etc.
Do not permit “after the fact” requests for confidentiality.
Before promising confidentiality, try to obtain the same information from sources willing to be quoted.
Make sure you understand your newsroom’s policy on confidentiality before promising it to sources.
Don’t let anonymous sources use the cloak of anonymity to attack other individuals or organizations.
Keep your promise about confidentiality.
Always bear in mind the power of the press when dealing with sources.
Are you willing to spell out in your news stories the methods you used to gain information from sources and why you may be protecting confidentiality.
And a journalist is willing to go to jail to protect his source as promised.
In the US, most states have Shield Laws protecting journalist and his source. But there is no Federal Shield Law.
In the Philippines, the attempt to amend the ageing shield law popularly known as the “Sotto Law” (RA 53- Press Freedom Law) has been delayed and bypassed many times in Congress.
The “Sotto Law” only protects the print media and excludes the broadcast journalists–whether TV or Radio. Thus, it has been proposed in several bills that broadcast and the internet media be included in the law and be provided with equal protection as enjoyed by their counterpart in the print.
When a source can be anonymous or confidential? Are the two synonymous and interchangeable? Are both legal or ethical? Consider the difference in the definition below by the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster sa Pilipinas:
Why and when sources have to be anonymous or confidential?
An ordinary employee may provide information about the wrongdoings in their office and reprisal by his boss may happen if his identity is known. That will put his job in jeopardy. Worse, the life of a source may be at stake when providing information in full view of the public. Sometimes, the source is a relative or friend of the subject person and he doesn’t want his relationship with the subject shall be affected.
On the other hand, unknown sources (without providing names) are disallowed under the circumstances below.
In view of the foregoing reasons, Anonymous sources have no longer been permitted in the media and confidential sources are instead allowed. In the Philippines, various media organizations have its own set of rules in permitting confidential sources.
To guide reporters in securing a confidential source, the PCIJ has this simple steps to follow as soon as a request for confidentiality by the source is requested.
In ascertaining the truth of a source’s claims, a second source is needed. As an example, again, is the ABS-CBN report on the alleged Health Record of now President Benigno Aquino that came out during the 2010 election campaigns. When the Health Record was shown to the office where it was supposedly issued, the document was found fictitious or never existed. That moment, the reporter may stop her investigation because there was no basis for reporting it. She may be just exploited by an interested source who wanted it to be reported in the media even if it’s entirely false.
In short, the First step is to determine whether or not the claim must be pursued. If it is false, then stop the investigation to prevent what is described in the Second step. In the ABS-CBN report, the source was linked to the rival party.
As a last step in declaring a confidential source, ask yourself if you can name your source according to his capacity to speak about the subject matter. Again, in the ABS-CBN report the source of the document should had been a hospital or clinic personnel who has personal knowledge that the document really existed. Unfortunately, the reporter’s source is a friend of the rival political party and had no personal knowledge about the alleged Medical Examination done upon Mr. Aquino.
In other words, the ABS-CBN reporter was a victim of a polluted source or of a beneficial party.
CHARACTERIZATION OF A SOURCE
Unfortunately, my source in the succeeding topics is the Manual for Ethical Standards of ABS-CBN News which was made public. The source, as i emphasized early in this article, must be fully aware of the various rules in the conduct of interviews whether the interview is “on-the-record” or “off-the-record” and if the source is “on background” or “on deep background”.
RECORDING VOICES AND IMAGES
Most IR involves recording of footage and voices of unwilling sources who got caught in the middle of the news reel. Journalists are always reminded of their limitation in this regard. While there’s no law prohibiting the taking of pictures and video-recording while in a public place, the audio recording of any conversation is restricted under the Anti-Wire Tapping Law.
I have been asked many times by my students why television programs are recording conversations of their subjects and played it on the air. Are they not supposed to follow the Anti-Wire Tapping Law?
I usually don’t have clear answers but i always give a guess. My guess–TV crews are only recording the video and in so doing they unintentionally recorded the audio which goes along with the video recording. Maybe i’m wrong or right since there’s no case filed against any network for violating the Anti-Wire Tapping Law in relation to their investigative programs’ recording of conversations.
Most TV networks provide legal advice to their news teams who shall engage in using hidden cams. Consequences in the video recording which most likely records voice conversations are being considered and the legal department is readying its defense in case the news crew shall be sued.
Hidden Camera refers to the covert use of a video camera in documenting a story. Why use a hidden camera in the news? Actual shots are very essentials to a broadcast story. It tells life and reality. These are the main reason why broadcast news employs hidden camera.
When we started in ABS-CBN Cebu, we used to practice “stolen shots”. These are shots taken without the consent and knowledge of the subjects. We then used in the upstream of the screen the phrase “Stolen shot” to tell the viewers that the footage is the actual shot taken without the subject’s knowledge. Somehow the notice justified the not so good framing of the shots taken. The cameraman usually took the shot while the camera is just on the table or on the lap of the cameraman while pointing the lens to the subject.
Later, we changed the phrase “stolen shot” to “actual shot” or “surveillance shot” because the former connotes malice. Besides, deception or employing false identity is also present in hidden camera. Though, there is no law barring anyone from taking shots of anyone in plain view unless the subject is in his private place.
Abroad, paparazzi takes shots of unwilling celebrities while in public places. Some took pictures of nude celebrities in their private pool. But the shots are taken from outside. Some countries allow the taking of this kind of photographs provided the camera is not using telescopic lens.
The principle behind this is the nature of the camera. The lens is likened to the human eyes and the imaging device is likened to our brain that stores the image. So, using a camera without any telescopic lens while taking shots of nude celebrities in their private pool but the shots are taken from the outside or nearby building would not make us a criminal.
Nevertheless, there are instances when hidden cam is justifiable in the news gathering. Here’s the guide:
And these are some of the reasons which won’t merit the use of a hidden camera.
Strictly no hidden camera shall be employed when the subject is a minor, persons with mental deficiencies and prisoners of war. The identity of a minor is protected under Philippine laws while the identities of prisoners of war is protected by the international war rules. Identifying persons with mental deficiencies involves ethics and personal health condition.
Views on Hidden Cam’s Ethical Issues:
THE ELECTRONIC TRAIL
Basically, the Electronic Trail or Digital Trail resembles the Paper Trail except that you do the search for information and documents using computers. Long before there was already the computer but not the internet, reporters were doing their electronic research by accessing the computer files in the public libraries and offices.
The internet makes the lives of a journalist much easier these days. Everything is on the tip of your fingers. Today’s search for facts starts @ Google.com and explore the rest.
My formal knowledge in Electronic Trail was provided by PCIJ which published the book–“The Electronic Trail– Computer-Assisted Research and Reporting in the Philippines.” I have read cover-to-cover the book which illustrated the basics of computer-assisted research.
But the book was published in 1997 and many of the latest innovations in online search have dramatically sprouting and can not be found in the book.
The traditional sources of information online includes wikipedia, official website of an organization or office, online libraries, news and magazine sites, and also Google itself provides direct answers like: looking for a definition and pronunciation of a word and images, conversions of all sorts from currency to kilometer-to-feet things, and even language translation.
The online resource today is so vast that sometimes information goes off out-of-hand. In the modern era, the gatekeeper role of the mainstream media is no longer there. The information will just come out from nowhere even ahead of the traditional media.
The social networking sites–Facebook and Twitter–lead an evolution of the streaming of information to the public. Tweets and status messages about a road accident accompanied by some pictures can be easily uploaded and go public in seconds. It used to be the radio reporters who was first in informing the public through their “live reports” regarding a road accident. But today the streams of information have changed. Imagine a video sex scandal made viral on the internet before media has formalized its existence by reporting that the video existed.
The perils of this unregulated stream of information is high and would require for the traditional media, through their online sites, to issue validation and verification of these information streamed earlier in the news feeds and tweet feeds of Facebook and Twitter respectively.
Using online resources for an IR is enormous. Let me enumerate some of the things an investigative reporter can do online:
Google-it, it means search for the topic using Google or whatever search engine you are comfortable with. Learn how to effectively use the key words for each search. Also, discover the advanced search techniques in Google and learn how to use the cache in case the web page you’re looking for has been pulled out already.
Tweets from the subject person can give clues.
Timeline posts and profile details on Facebook of the subject person may open for more clues.
Online library like Chan Robles Virtual Library can provide you with updated laws and decrees.
If you can’t catch him, email him. Send your questions via electronic mail. Be sure to use an email service which has a returned receipt for you to prove later he read your mail. YahooMail and Gmail don’t have this feature but Microsoft’s Outlook has this notification sent back to you once your mail is read by the recipient. Sending mail via online is effective especially if the subject is evasive to answer your queries. If the subject still won’t reply despite your mail, then you shall have the signal to proceed without his side.
Chat with him if he can’t talk. I love chatting online with those students who aren’t “noisy” in the class because they are “talkative” in the chat box. Similarly, some sources are more open with journalist in writing like chatting. There’s a plus factor in interviewing online– a written record or transcript of your conversation. Be it on Instant Messenger or Facebook Chat, the conversation has a record.
Screenshots of your computer display works favorable to you when you want pieces of evidence to collect.
I am hesitant to close this article at this point. Like in all other articles, closing paragraphs should give a wrap-up or a call-to-action for the readers. What do you expect from a visitor after reading your article? That is how to end this article. Post your comments or questions in the Comment Box below or like this post.
If you still have the energy or still not getting bored reading this post, proceed and read the remaining paragraphs where i narrated how did i write an IR. :)
AN IR REPORT
In the middle of the 90s, i was pursuing a story about a local brand of a bottled water marketed as a “mineral water” because allegedly the water inside the bottle was sourced from a spring in a northern town of Cebu. Before i considered doing an IR, rumors had already spread that the water contained in the product didn’t actually come from the springs.
It took several months before i could start the IR because of the absence of a legitimate source who can tell the story. Finally, a group of disgruntled former employees of the company came to open and told members of the media about the bottled water. They said the company was just extracting water right in their plant in Mandaue City and what is inside the bottle is not mineral water but purified water.
However, i could not make the statements of the former employees as official because they did the statement “off-the-record” and they can be considered beneficial source for having grudges against their former employer. I was waiting for official sources to kick start my IR.
My patience had paid off. I was invited by the local officials of the town where the spring water is located to cover their “ribbon-cutting” ceremony of a community stage project. The activity was scheduled on a Saturday and the event was very small to cover for television news. But i went there hoping i could get an official source of my story–the water inside the bottled “mineral water” produced by the company was no longer from the springs of the town.
After the ribbon-cutting rite, i talked informally to one of the members of the Sangguniang Bayan about the company hauling water from their springs. Bingo! The councilor told me that they formally made an inquiry about it also because they’d noticed that the company was no longer extracting water in huge hauls from the springs but the company had been selling boxes of water in the market. They felt being cheated by the company which has been using the name of their town’s springs.
I interviewed the councilor on-the-record about the passing of the resolution calling for an investigation of the hauling of water from the town’s spring and interviewed later the town mayor for reaction. I went back to the town on a Monday and proceeded in getting the copy of the resolution and the minutes of the session when the issue was discussed. Delivery and hauling records of the company for their actual hauling of water from the spring were also provided to me without hesitation from the Municipal Treasurer’s Office.
From the record, i’d learned that there were times the company had only one haul of truckload of water in a week from the spring but yet the company sold several boxes of “mineral water” in the market. I also interviewed the owner of the lot where the spring was located and the checker hired by the municipal hall to confirm the number of hauls by the company in a week. In that instance, i was already nearly convinced that what is inside the bottled “mineral water” is just sourced from tap water or deep well of the company.
Remember, the former employees of the company had told us that the company was extracting water right in their plant site in Mandaue. The next step was to verify whether the company was extracting water from a deep well or from the local water district. Records at the Metropolitan Cebu Water District showed that the company is not a concessionaire. The legal office of the MCWD also revealed in an interview that they are investigating the company for possible extraction of water from a deep well without the required permit. The MCWD is deputized by the Local Water Utilities Administration to regulate the extraction of water by private homes and companies. But the MCWD had not issued a permit to the company.
We were supposed to place a sample of the bottled “mineral water” of the company under a laboratory test to confirm that the content is not mineral water but purified water. But we decided not to proceed with it after reading the label of the product. On its front label, the product said it was “Mineral Water”. But when we read the nutritional facts at the back of the label, the mineral contents were labeled zero. It means it was de-mineralized water. Also, the label said the water passed through the modern water filtering technology by means of reverse osmosis.
By few searches over the net, i’d learned that reverse osmosis purifies the water by filtering out all other elements including the trace minerals in the water. Meaning, the water has no more sodium, magnesium, calcium, bicarbonate, etc. In short, the water is purified least of its mineral content. We let the Bureau of Food And Drugs explained it further in our on-cam interview.
Hence, we were able to establish that the water content is not mineral water but purified water, we asked the opinion of the Department of Trade and Industry for possible violation of the company. Considering the company labeled their product as “mineral water”, the DTI said it was a violation of the product labeling law.
Of course, to balance our story we asked the company to answer our questions in an interview. We wrote the company and sent our letter via fax. Though hesitant but the company through their lawyer agreed to an on-cam interview with us and denied the allegations they mislabeled their product and clarified they had enough hauls of waters from the spring of that northern town of Cebu.
The manager of the company also toured us around the plant. The manager confirmed they are not a concessionaire of the MCWD and has no water pumps. So where did they get the water for their rest rooms and for their garden and for other purposes? The manager said they used the mineral water that they hauled from the spring. Obviously, his statement didn’t jive with the figures at the treasurer’s office of the town.
Soon, the company changed the label of their bottled water into “drinking water” until today. The Metropolitan Cebu Water District, by its deputization, has now able to collect taxes for the water that the company extracted from their plant site.
My story had made a change and awareness for the consumers. :)