Investigative reporting has always been crucial for the media to fulfil its role as a watchdog, but as news consumption habits change and social media plays a larger role in news distribution, how does this affect the production of in-depth journalism?

Mark Williams-Thomas, the investigative reporter who exposed Jimmy Savile's sex crimes in the programme Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile, gave his advice to aspiring and professional investigative journalists at this year's NCTJ Journalism Skills conference on 25 November.

Don't be a desk journalist

"There is now too much of a reliance on the internet and social media platforms to get answers. There's nothing that beats being on the ground, banging on doors and speaking to people," he said.

"We have a real danger in today's society of becoming journalists stuck behind desks."

As a former detective, Williams-Thomas believes the basic elements of solving crimes and finding out information continue into investigative reporting, noting that asking questions and being curious will get journalists in contact with those they would never have been able to get access to otherwise.

"You might find this astonishing, but the large majority of police officers do not have internet access – it means they've got to get out and discover those things that aren't just reliant on what you can see behind a desk," he said.

And that all comes with having a passion for the job, Williams-Thomas noted, and a willingness to go out there and discover things for yourself without waiting for news to come to you.

"When I made the Savile programme, I spent a year investigating it before it went to broadcast, and I only got paid for that work two months later."

If someone comes to you with an incredible story, step back from it and look deep into that personMark Williams-Thomas, investigative journalist

He said those starting out in journalism should "be hungry to find things out and learn different things", ensuring they avoid tunnel-vision and being stuck in one area.

"When you interview someone, listen and respond after you've taken on board what they've told you," he said.

"There's a massive skill to being an investigator and getting information from people, and that's to listen – if you don't ask, you won't find out."

Use all the tools available to you

"Investigative journalism done properly does take a lot of time, and the big problem that publishers have now is that investment in time costs money," he said.

But there are now more tools available to journalists than ever before, and many can be used for free or at a low cost, such as blogs, forums, crime records, open-source information, or someone's social media footprint.

While these tools might be open to all, journalists still need to be resilient in order to get all the information they need.

"If someone starts quoting data protection as a way to not give you information, if you know your rights, make sure you question them and more often then not they will succumb.

"Get out and build your book up, speak to everybody you possibly can – just remember it is our duty to protect and support them, or they will stop telling us information."

Be aware of the challenges of social media

"News is normally broken on social media, but the ease at which anybody can pass comment on it is a huge issue," he said.

"There's such a power in these platforms, so just make sure you're not setting yourself up to be criticised, where potentially there are things that will come out of the woodwork which will undermine both you and the integrity of the story that you're doing."

When working on the Savile investigation, he spent hours interviewing one of the women in the programme, asking her the difficult questions that had to be asked to cover all lines of inquiry and avoid any unforeseen information surfacing in the future.

As the dash to be the first news outlet with the story is amplified online, there is a real danger of publishing inaccurate information or sensationalising a story.

"If someone comes to you with an incredible story, step back from it and look deep into that person – is there another agenda or a reason that could come left field that would undermine the quality of that investigation?" he asked.

For more advice on what it takes to be an investigative journalist, check out this interview with BBC reporter John Sweeney, part of our 'So you want to be a...' video series.

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