Investigative Journalism : How Four Corners researches stories 2

Four Corners celebrates 50 years of investigative journalism

What makes investigative journalism different from ordinary reporting? Daily reporters are deluged with transitory events which often obscure the larger issues; the gaffes, media releases, staged photo opportunities and the hot house intrigues of parliamentary politics. Pressed by deadlines, and hemmed by the size of the news hole, daily journalists often have  to ignore the stories behind the news.  Investigative journalists can go much further. If journalism is non fiction writing (news) embedded with identifiable sources, Investigative Journalism can involve finding important news someone does not want the public to know.

Peter Cronau is senior producer at Australia’s leading investigative journalism television program, Four Corners, and has worked as a producer and a researcher there for eleven years. Four Corners produces complex forty five minute reports, the product of detailed research which could take up to six months to complete. Usually Four Corners worked on a six week cycle for stories. “Two weeks of research, two weeks of filming and two weeks of production,” Cronau said. “Forty five minutes is a long time on television,” he said. “It just chews up material”.

You will have a mountain of information. You will have twenty folders spread across your desk, with topics and organisations listed on them with names of people you have talked to. You will have a contact list seven or eight pages long with twenty names and numbers of people on each page. You will have quite a bit of information. But the brief you will prepare really only needs to be a couple of pages. In fact, its often called a one pager.

The research brief would  then be subjected a “rigorous and robust” discussion involving the Executive Producer, the reporter and other staff.

Its picked to pieces. You have a chance to present your case verbally. You run through the type of characters, case studies and sequences. You have to prove why the story is important. You might be able to show you know something that no-one else knows. the story is debated. Suggestions are made. Some times stories are knocked over on the spot.

Peter Cronau

The visual component of the story was critical.

If you can come up with [visual] sequences that make a story live, that can really help you. You can have a terrific story but with little action to film, you are going to be struggling to get it across.

There had to be an “efficient” shooting schedule created.

You only have a limited time and budget when you are out there so you have to make sure that you are interviewing people who are going to be in the program. You are not just doing interviews because someone has something to say. You need to be interviewing someone who will have a part in the story when you have finished it. I don’t leave until I have a shooting script.

The shooting script was “an idealised version” of what the story might be. Such a script also showed holes that there might be in the story which would need to be filled by further research and interviews.

You might think you have the story in your head, but by going through this tough discipline you can end up with a solid piece of structure which you can show the boss discuss with the reporter or anybody else and eventually come up with a better version, before you even head out. You never leave for a place unless you have the story nailed into your brain. If you head out unsure of what the story is,  you end up with a mess.

Cronau’s final tip for would be investigative journalists though is to be always curious, always inquisitive :

Never leave any stone unturned. You will find connections you never imagined existed.

Steps to be taken to create a research brief include :

  • Read broadly relevant local and overseas press reports
  • Create Google alerts
  • Do a data base search for specific clippings
  • Compile a list of contacts from the “dozens” of sources quoted
  • Contact local journalists for insights
  • Consult appropriate academics or experts
  • Conduct relevant Freedom of Information searches
  • Look for any relevant court case transcripts
  • Pre-interview possible candidates for later “on the record” interviews


  1. Definitely a “go-to” post. I will certainly be coming back to this entry in the future. Some valuable tips and insights. Cheers.

  2. Pingback: eJournalist : Volume Eleven, Number Two « Online Journalism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s