Organising investigations: a guide to story-based inquiry


This year at the CIJ Summer School, Adjunct Professor, Mark Lee Hunter, explained how using hypotheses can frame and sell your story. A hypothesis is what the investigator wants to prove or disprove. It takes the best information you have into account and contains factual assertions that can be verified.

How hypotheses frame and sell your story

Hunter suggested three key tips on making a hypothesis work:

  • It needs to be approached slowly
  • It should be viewed in the easiest way possible
  • You do not want to jump ahead to the most difficult approach first

It is also important to consider the worthiness of an investigation before conducting it. If the hypothesis is of high importance and easy to establish, then the investigation is definitely worth pursuing. However, if it is of low importance and difficult to prove or disprove, then do not waste your time.

An investigation should be seen as an investment. Consider the return on investigation and what will be gained from it.

Plotting and outlining investigative stories

“Expand the hypothesis into a timeline”, recommends Luuk Sengers. Count the verbs in your hypothesis, as this indicates events.

This then helps you to split the hypothesis into a sequence of happenings, which defines the story behind the investigation.

A hypothesis timeline also establishes the sources possibly involved in the story. State their roles and add them to the timeline. These processes have to be followed before heading out and interviewing: you have to know what you are looking for, otherwise you will not find it.

Sengers also suggests turning these events into scenes. Interesting characters and settings are needed to create a newsworthy story. Conflict, struggle and drama give the story and investigation purpose.

Writing and promotion an investigation

Hunter wrapped up story-based inquiry by explaining how to write and promote the final story:

“The structure is more important than the content. If the structure is not right, then the story won’t work.”

He advises using one of two types of structures: chronological structure is when the story is written in order of time. Picaresque structure orders the story in regards to place. Ultimately, let the material tell you which structure to choose.

Once the order has been decided, the professor gave tips on how to write the best story possible:

  • Never say anything twice, unless summarising – repetition suggests ambiguity
  • Cut every nuance of every idea
  • Be specific with numbers and statistics
  • Don’t let the ‘experts’ define your story
  • Be simple – Unnecessary detail weighs and slows the story down
  • Don’t play the victim yourself
  • Let sources tell and close the story
  • Don’t be ashamed to be mean, so do not apologise for harsh words in the final paragraph
  • Take a break from writing when you feel tired
  • Avoid ‘Pollyanna Syndrome’, where an overly positive outlook ends the story
  • Check that the story is fluent and coherent

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