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"Do not be captivated by the idea that you're going to be doing undercover filming or spending a lot of your time being given secret documents or working with whistleblowers," warns Christopher Hird, editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), speaking to

For those just starting out, such a romanticised image of the investigative reporter as a hard-bitten, film noir icon – what the Guardian's Paul Lewis describes as "a reporter in a long mac, slightly dishevelled-looking and obsessive" – is one of many misconceptions that can stand in the way of getting the job done properly. The topic under discussion may be clandestine but the graft put into researching and uncovering the story rarely is.

"Sometimes that may be part of what you do but it's not really the essence of it," he said. "People need to be crystal clear that the essence of what you do is hard intellectual work in pursuit of a genuine piece of public education."

Recent stories at the BIJ have included the role of lobbyists in the UK, a British mining company in South Africa and drone attacks by the US military around the world, among others, and all have included a long process of conducting interviews, collecting information, following leads, tracking reports and waiting for information.

"What you're doing in this kind of journalism is enquiring," he said. "It's trying to establish as close as you can the truth of what has gone on and to do that it's not just a question of collecting statistical data but also people's testimony and observed events and, from many people's experiences and involvement in something, piecing together the whole."

If I had to give any advice for someone who wanted to do investigative work, it would be to just start doing itMarshall Allen, Pro Publica
"The real purpose is to up-scale the general public in terms of their knowledge of what goes on in our society and in so doing help people to be more active participants and effective citizens. That is our function."

But where do you start?

Training vs experience

Paul Lewis, the Guardian's Washington correspondent who was the special projects editor in London before his move, began as a trainee at the Guardian after freelancing in the US for some years after university.

Marshall Allen, a reporter at investigative site Pro Publica, was working in a Christian ministry before switching to a small paper in Los Angeles when, in his late 20s, he realised that he wanted to pursue journalism.

Prior to embarking on their journalism careers, neither had undertaken official training, but instead based their work on initiative and curiosity. They saw stories and looked into them with the time and tools available.

"If I had to give any advice for someone starting out who wanted to do investigative work, one bit would be to just start doing it," said Allen.

"Sometimes you think that you have to do a massive, in-depth, year-long investigation that reveals some amazing finding that gets people fired, or gets companies shut down, or gets people thrown in jail. Those stories are really few and far between. I think developing an investigative mindset from the start is really the key to developing investigative skills."

Allen was attending city council meetings or school board meetings or the opening of new businesses and writing "two or three stories a day" for a small, twice-weekly paper in a suburb of Los Angeles. The first stories were basic news pieces on a quick turnaround but being at the meetings would open his eyes to potential leads from the community.

"Maybe if parents had complaints about something the school district was doing, you can still dig in to a story like that and give it a real punch," he said.

"You can just take what people tell you on face value or you can actually investigate what they tell you and find out whether what they tell you is true or not, whether they're manipulating you or not and then report it in an accurate, straight-forward way that represents the public."

For Allen, the important thing is to just get started. Attending local meetings can start the ball rolling for small local stories that may be worth pursuing, but social media is also now often a platform for people to air their grievances on certain subjects and can give established or aspiring journalists a way to reach communities and stories they may not otherwise.

Hird said that gaining a journalism qualification can help to distinguish you from others. But, he said, the determining factor will always be the stories, so he stressed getting experience as early as possible to prove to employers that you are serious and to understand what the job entails.

"I think the essential requirements are a lot of curiosity, a lot of skepticism and a capacity to do the three things that are essential," Hird said, "which are test a hypothesis, analyse all the information and evidence and data, and synthesise that into a story well told."

Some necessary skills

The digital revolution and Freedom of Information Act have made information much more freely available, said Hird, while governments and companies are more attuned to the methods by which they could be investigated.

So what skills should an investigative journalist have in the 21st century? Statistical analysis? Computer wizardry? What about good, old-fashioned interview skills?

"There are some people who have very analytical brains and are good at reading through reports and footnotes and cross-referencing and doing the methodical, forensic stuff," Lewis told, while still special projects editor. "That can be very important to investigative reporting, like sifting through company accounts or trying to decipher complex documents, but at the same time it can be really useful to be good at understanding people and being persuasive and getting people to trust you.

"They're all useful skills to have and I don't think there's any journalist who's good at all of it. I think it's important to use what you have to your advantage."

Data analysis can provide you with the skeleton to the story but to really put meat on the bones you need all the on-the ground reportingMarshall Allen, Pro Publica
Using and understanding social media is vital, said Lewis, and being able to search the internet with a little more acuity than a standard Google search, but personal skills are just as relevant for getting people to open up.

The recent advent of Wikileaks and big data has drawn attention to that type of journalism, but stories driven by more traditional skills are still common. In 2010, for example, Lewis began working on a story that saw him and a colleague spend three years painstakingly building the trust of sources and pursuing the truth.

"It began with the case of Mark Kennedy", Lewis explained. As an undercover police officer, Kennedy spent seven years infiltrating environmental activist groups. "One of the first things we did there was not write anything," Lewis said.

He quickly approached Kennedy's friends in the environmental movement, but they were so shocked by the revelations that they did not want to speak to the press. Two and a half months later the first story about Kennedy was printed and more contacts started to approach Lewis and his colleague at the Guardian, Rob Evans.

"Of the number of sources that came forward one of them is Peter [Francis], we've known him for about two and a half years and he has helped as a confidential source up until about a week and a half ago when he became an on-the-record named source. And I would imagine that time has helped to establish that trust," he said.

The episode of Dispatches, which carried allegations relating to a number of different undercover police tactics, was based largely on testimony from Francis – himself an undercover officer – and other sources that took time, trust and patience to develop.

This cultivation of sources is mirrored in Allen's work, both in what he did in his early days and in what he now does at ProPublica, but some stories require a solid foundation of evidence backed up by personal statements.

A lot of Allen's work at ProPublica is about healthcare, so medical records can help to verify and substantiate reports from interviewees.

"Both data and interviews are very important," Allen said. "In any story you want to be able to quantify the problem, which does often involve data analysis and statistics and getting very detailed. If there's no data available then you want to find some way to quantify things but that's just the starting point.

"Data analysis can provide you with the skeleton to the story but to really put meat on the bones and flesh it out you need to also do all the on-the-ground reporting that you would more traditionally think of in journalism."

The importance of a team
Almost without exception, investigative journalism is a team effortChristopher Hird, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Allen has a colleague who helps with much of the data analysis and Lewis, despite moving to the US, still runs a Guardian blog with Evans about undercover policing. The "lone wolf" image of some investigative journalists is another misconception, said Hird, and although it is possible to pursue smaller stories alone, as Allen did, bigger stories often require more hands on deck.

"I do think that, almost without exception, investigative journalism is a team effort," Hird said. "A lot of journalism is a team effort. It is certainly my experience that the quality of the work is likely to be higher if it's several people working on it instead of just one."

This is not just about the sharing of skills and specialisms, he said, but about making sure all the possible angles are covered.

"It's also a question of creating an environment where you're constantly testing what the hypothesis is. Do we need more information? Have we ignored anything? Does it make sense? It's much easier if there's more than one of you."

Lewis agreed.

"Speaking personally," he said, "I think there's a huge amount to gain from other people because you can bounce things off them and you can have a second opinion before you make every decision and I think that's invaluable. There are people with great judgement but we can all make mistakes and I think that chance is diminished when there are two of you."

Finding a supportive and talented team is easier said than done but if you start from the position that you are in and do what you can with what you have then people will notice, said Allen.

"There are editors who are looking for really good stories, it doesn't matter if they know you or not," he said. "If you have a mind which can identify a great story, and you have cultivated sources who will tell you about great stories, then you're going to be a valuable reporter to some editor or publication out there."

To help you get started, here are some articles from on tools, resources and case studies of investigative journalism:

The interviews featured in this feature were based on those used in August's podcast on breaking into investigative journalism.

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