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My Le Thi’s Scale of Care requires our input to balance injustice. Credit: Shirley Way
My Le Thi’s Scale of Care requires our input to balance injustice. Credit: Shirley Way

For the 50th anniversary of investigative program Four Corners, two slogans were used: ‘Your stories are history’ and ‘The stories that changed Australia’.

“It’s not the stories that changed Australia,” ABC TV reporter Sarah Ferguson told journalists last week. “Good writing and visual production – that’s what changed Australia.”

Ferguson focused firmly on the craft of narrative and the science of investigative reporting during her keynote address at the national journalism conference, aptly named Storyology.

“We’re using the word ‘story’ too much while we neglect the craft,” Ferguson said as she lamented students were first taught to read the autocue before how to make ‘good TV’.


‘Good TV’ is made from the principles of a good narrative – purpose, humanity and detail, Ferguson explained.

“What is it that they [the interviewees] really know? Where is the humanity? What are the details? We are journalists; we have to live the detail.”

Ferguson’s examples of good scripting and visual production included Frank Bennett’s 1966 Four Corners exposé on equal pay for aboriginal stockmen.

She praised the simple, straight questions which gave the interviewees the dignity and space to speak, and, the clear storyline driven by prior research.

By contrast, Ferguson declared a film ban on warm colour temperatures, beach scenes and piano music to convey pathos.

We’re smarter than that, she said. Storytellers engage with people; humanity drives the narrative.

US investigative journalist Charles Lewis. Credit: Shirley Way.

US investigative journalist Charles Lewis: “If you don’t have information in a community, you don’t have a community.” Credit: Shirley Way.


“All in-your-face journalism incorporates integrity of one sort or another,” US investigative journalist Charles (Chuck) Lewis said.

“If you don’t have information in a community, you don’t have a community.”

The Investigative Reporting Workshop is the largest non-profit organisation of its kind in America, the fifth founded by Mr Lewis, and only one of two that partners with public broadcasters.

He said: “I’ve become a sort of Yoda. I don’t want young people to be ignorant of how to do investigative reporting.

“I have a simple MO (mode of operation). All decisions have some grounding in documents, but most think about processes. The secret is this – cross-match multiple data sets.”

With 114 US federal agencies, 50 states, multiple counties and corporations keeping records, there’s a lot of scope for investigative reporting which Lewis described as under threat in mainstream media corporations.

In recent years, the US ratio of public relations professionals to journalists has risen to 4:1, and, the number of dedicated investigative journalists has dropped dramatically.

For example, CNN reports in 100 countries but does not investigate, and, there may be as few as 15 (mainstream) investigative journalists for 33 million people, Lewis said.

By contrast, over 80 US non-profit organisations have formed the Investigative News Network to find ways to make investigative journalism viable and sustainable, and, during the five years to 2010, 180 non-profit foundations gave US$160m ‘for this kind of journalism’.

Lewis advocated for “accountability studies”, a new, broader non-traditional vision for investigative work.

Investigations were routinely carried out through non-government organisations, such as Human Rights Watch, which employed forensic accountants and human rights lawyers.

“All have investigative approaches, even if these are not journalists. These walls have got to move,” Lewis said.

More information:
Investigative Reporting Workshop: http://investigativereportingworkshop.org/
Storyology: http://www.storyology.org.au/

This article was first published at CitizenJ Australia