Tips to Conducting Investigations for TV from ICFJ Knight Award Winner Riad Kobaissi

By: Asma Qandil | 09/08/2023

The 2020 Beirut port blast – one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history – killed more than 200 people and injured over 6,500. It left Lebanon reeling.

In its aftermath, investigative journalist Riad Kobaissi and his colleagues published leaked government documents that allegedly showed how Lebanese government officials were aware of, yet did nothing about, the careless stockpiling of large amounts of the ammonium nitrate responsible for the disaster.

This investigation is just one of the instances of corruption in Lebanon that Kobaissi and his team of seven journalists and a camera crew, who make up the investigative unit of Al Jadeed, have uncovered over the years. 

Kobaissi, a 2023 ICFJ Knight International Journalism Award winner, has also contributed to major cross-border investigations, such as the Panama Papers and Swiss Leaks, as well as a major report with the Organized Crime and Corruption Project (OCCRP) and Daraj Media that uncovered offshore accounts held by Lebanon’s Central Bank governor. 

In a recent Arabic Global Crisis Reporting Forum webinar, Kobaissi offered tips for journalists to conduct and produce investigations for television. He discussed how journalists can assess risks and protect themselves physically and digitally, among other topics.

First, journalists should differentiate between what people want to know and what they must know, Kobaissi advised: focus more on issues in the public interest. Journalists should furthermore communicate their stories in compelling ways to engage their audiences. 

Here are more of Kobaissi’s top tips for investigative journalists producing their work for TV: 

Safety precautions

Journalists should assess all risks when planning their investigations, and weigh the importance of publishing against them, Kobaissi said. They shouldn’t put their lives on the line for the sake of an investigation, he continued, no matter how important it may seem.

Kobaissi stressed the need to follow necessary digital security procedures, such as protecting one’s social media accounts to mitigate the possibility of being hacked. Journalists shouldn’t respond to people who attack them on social media, he said, and avoid traveling to places where threats have been made against them.

It’s equally critical that journalists ensure the safety of their sources, said Kobaissi. Journalists should explain the risks that can result from publishing an investigation; if a source is harmed, others might think twice before speaking with the journalist in the future. Journalists should also fact-check all information their sources share with them.
 

Producing for TV

Producing investigations for TV requires meeting the audience where they are, said Kobaissi. Keep in mind, in particular, that people generally tend to prefer watching lighter fare and entertainment. 

Language used for TV should be basic and familiar: avoid presenting information in a way that might turn people off from watching. Journalists must strike a balance between providing facts and building suspense to draw viewers in, Kobaissi added. 

Audience reactions and responses to cross-border investigations may vary from country to country. For example, the stories on tax evasion in the Panama Papers did not receive the same degree of attention in all parts of the world.

Feedback from social media users can help inform what best engages an audience. This feedback can often be incomplete, however, Kobaissi cautioned: your program, or parts of it, may be banned in certain countries, preventing people from watching. 
 

Undercover filming

Kobaissi advised journalists to exercise caution if they go undercover for an investigation, as this may violate people’s privacy. Secretly placed cameras also pose risks if they record uninvolved subjects. While he usually doesn’t use this tactic, Kobaissi said he makes an exception when it comes to officials who steal public funds, as their crimes directly affect the general population.

Covert filming presents unique risks, he continued. Take for instance, an investigation conducted by a BBC journalist in 2006, in which the journalist used secretly recorded videos to expose racism among police in Manchester, U.K. When the police discovered the recordings, they arrested the reporter. He was later released because he proved he was working in the public interest.

Sometimes, an interview subject’s face may be intentionally obscured during a TV broadcast. Kobaissi prefers not to do this: it is necessary, he believes, that if the interviewee alleges that someone committed a crime, that the person mentioned can fully respond to the accusations.

Journalists can utilize different publishing platforms to broaden their investigations’ reach beyond TV, Kobaissi suggested. Consider posting short videos on social media to drive engagement, for instance. These videos can include additional information not already presented on TV. He also recommended, if the resources are there, launching a website with details about the investigation.
 

Additional tips from Kobaissi

  • Don’t fabricate or exclude evidence to prove a hypothesis or theory.

  • Offer targets of an investigation the ability to respond, and keep in mind their right to privacy.

  • Maintain ethical standards when conducting investigations in which children may be involved. Consider the effects a story might have on a child if their identity is revealed.

  • When planning an investigation, summarize your hypothesis and how you will go about proving it. Identify your sources, as well as any risks involved. 

  • If an investigation’s hypothesis can’t be proven, consider modifying it or ending the investigation.

  • To better protect yourself, ensure that a media outlet is willing to publish your investigation.


This story first appeared on IJNet.

 

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