Investigative reporters probe questionable activities that are hidden from public view, appear to go against the public interest and which the public do not know much if anything about. You lay dubious practices open for public scrutiny and debate. You do not need to uncover a national or international conspiracy; begin locally then progress to bigger jobs if you want to broaden and deepen your field. One of the many good starter handbooks is A Watchdog’s Guide to Investigative Reporting
Examples where hidden harms against animals may emerge and should be investigated and challenged are:
- Animal baiting.
- Animal experimentation laboratories.
- Pet theft.
- Wildlife hunting and destruction.
- Animal trade import and export.
- Animal transport national and international.
- Factory farming and fur farming.
- Domestic animal abuse in the home.
- Food and clothing labelling.
- Violations of codes of professional conduct, eg at business companies, circuses, rodeos and abattoirs.
You may be motivated to take up your investigation for the sake of animals. Nevertheless, you will be in a far stronger position if you present your evidence and conclusions in terms of the interests of people, such as people’s health and well being, their economics or sense of morality. Slant your exposure like this and many more people will respond to your investigative report.
Where do you get ideas for an investigation?
- Monitor industries such as fur fashion, factory farming and pet food production.
- Look for trends, like an increase in foie gras or veal, and prosecutions for selling meat unsuitable for human consumption.
- Check the news and examine local or national features to find a new angle on an existing story.
- Browse the online media for ideas.
- Ask acquaintances and brain-storm with colleagues.
The results of your investigation must be published if there is to be any kind of public or official reaction to it. Ask yourself these questions about an investigation you have in mind before you start spending a lot of time on the case.
- Would a reputable animal advocate organisation publish your findings as a report? Make enquires.
- Could your findings be published locally or nationally in the media (eg is it newsworthy - see Newspapers and Radio)?
- Might legal action be taken about your findings? Get good legal advice.
Your subject may be worthwhile investigating if the answer to any of these questions is yes. But if the answer to all three questions is negative, then think again; look for a different angle to pitch your investigation or cast about for another subject to investigate. Do not just hope or assume that any of these questions might turn out positive. Time spent getting evidence for and against these considerations is time well spent.
Get a clear idea of why you propose doing a potential investigation. Examine the investigation from as many angles as you can to forestall any problems. Ask yourself:
- What hidden activities might you reveal and are they illegal?
- What moral values might you question?
- Can you hold any perpetrator accountable legally or morally?
- Has the problem already been exposed and is nevertheless continuing? If continuing explore why.
- What must you do to get proof of the activity (eg eyewitness statements, documentation, photography, environmental tests)?
- Will you get the evidence openly or by deception?
- Will there be any legal infringements getting the evidence, such as trespass or theft?
- How will the story be delivered to the public (eg to magazines, newspapers, social media or animal rights bodies)?
- Will there be any legal problems like libel once your report is published?
Follow up your investigation after it is published. Are the abuses still continuing? Keep checking and reinvestigate as necessary.
Is Investigative Reporting for You?
Investigative reporting may be for you if you:
- Have an enterprising nature for uncovering shady activity.
- Are single-minded and focused to keep on track.
- Can identify key points, think critically and ask the right questions.
- Can react quickly in a tricky situation.
- Have self-control when dealing with upsetting conditions.
- Have patience and firmness when handling disagreeable people.
- Are prepared for the possibility of being physically assaulted.
You may want a sound recorder, but going overboard with gadgets is pointless because your eyes and ears are your primary tools. You could operate a pocket sound recorder, perhaps to catch your targets compromising themselves. But a recorder might only add to your workload if you have to transcribe loads of recordings onto paper. Always write notes of what you witness at the time or immediately afterwards; never rely on memory alone.
In some places you may take photos openly. In other situations you may have to be more secretive. A hidden camera could be invaluable for gaining photographic evidence, such as when snooping for unlawful activity, like at an animal baiting. Hidden cameras are so small they can mimic buttons on your jacket. They are not overly expensive to buy and you can connect them to a portable device to store the pictures.
Legality & Ethics
During the course of your enquiries you may at times have to conceal your identity to gain the trust of people in order to expose their dubious operations. Even so, good animal rights investigative reporters obey the law (at least most of the time) and act ethically.
You must obtain information legally to use it legally, as in a published report or in a court of law. You take a risk using illegally obtained information openly; you may find yourself in a tangle with the law and with a lawsuit on your hands. The main use of illegally obtained information is that it provides knowledge of something that can be investigated further in a legal way. Should you know that you have to use illegally obtained information in your report, try to acquire it in such a way that it cannot reveal to the law how you came by it.
Animal rights investigative reporters should act ethically. A suitable ethical code can be summed up as:
- Be sincere, frank and fair with truthful and honest people.
- Make your investigative report accurate and objective; stick to the facts and never misrepresent the issue in any way.
- Never reveal your confidential sources of information.
Follow these rules to build up your credibility with your animal rights associates and the public.
(1) Forbes, Derek. A Watchdog’s Guide to Investigative Reporting: a simple introduction to principles and practice in investigative reporting.
Johannesburg: Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. 2005.
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