The making of an investigative documentary – Part I

Kristina Khoo, the journalist behind the investigative documentary on the realities of rough sleepers in London on this site, spent four months gathering information and talking to the homeless and other very vulnerable people in hostels and on the streets. In part one of this post, Kristina shares with HMI Welfare the practical steps involved in making such a documentary, which may help others working on  similar investigations.

Kristina has an MA in International Journalism from Brunel University and is currently available for work. You can contact her on Twitter (@KristinaKhoo) or by leaving a comment here.

Making a an investigative documentary – Part I: Practical steps

1) Setting the direction of the documentary

Apart from the initial basic research on the topic, having face-to-face  meetings with charity people before starting interviews was vital in shaping the direction of my documentary. Through these “little chats” I had arranged, I found out what the loopholes in the government’s policy in ending homelessness were. The street team taught me what they do to get rough sleepers off the streets at night. I also found out about Operation Poncho, during which rough sleepers are hosed down in the middle of the night and Westminster’s Council’s unpublicised tactics in discouraging soup runs.

2) Reserve time for pre-interview sessions

Managers both at Trinity Homeless Project and Pret-a-Manger requested a pre-interview session to brief me about their work, discuss the points I wanted to raise, possible interviewees and the location of the filming. Travelling to and sitting in these meetings were time consuming. Before filming even starts, allow plenty of time to brief and be briefed.

3) Contacts are golden assets – collect as you go

Contacts provide journalists with story ideas and information. They are an invaluable asset to a journalist. My contacts for this documentary were a mixture of top people from charitable organisations and others further down the ladder, who provided me with all sorts of useful information. My contacts have increased in the course of the project and I now have names on my database, which will be useful if I ever need information on a variety of social issues such as housing, drug addiction, religion.

4) Cookie baking…or looking after your contacts

Following the principle I had been taught that journalists should look after ‘their contacts as they would a friend’ (Investigative reporting in practice), I returned favours to some of my contacts by helping them film a short interview for a charity, writing a feature on homelessness for a magazine, proofreading an article written by a homeless, even baking cookies for charities I had interviewed. But I did question if journalist should always return favours like this.

5) Open questions only

I did not want interviewees giving me stories they thought I wanted to hear so I avoided leading questions. Instead of asking if the police came and harassed the homeless in the middle of the night, or if they had been hosed, I asked them what night times were like or what happened when they bedded down.

6) Fact check all info

Information from interviewees is not always reliable or accurate, so they need to be checked. Just as journalists develop a nose for news, I discovered they can learn to sniff out ‘bullshit’ and pick out conflicting information. I did this by repeating the same questions worded differently. For instance, a homeless person had told me he was never a drug addict or an alcoholic. But when I asked him later how homelessness had affected him, he said he “had been clean for a year”.

Take time to check your facts.

7) Theory and evidence

During the course of my investigations, I discovered demeaning enforcement tactics were being used on the homeless. Henry, for example, who rough sleeps at the Old Street roundabout, told me police officers frequently take him to the police station for questioning every time an offence has been committed in the local area. I did not use all of these facts in the documentary. But the background information helped me form a theory about the authorities’ unacceptable approaches towards the homeless, which I then backed up by collecting evidence.

8 )Thick skin and perseverance

These are two essential attributes a journalist must have. And don’t forget making mistakes is only human. As a result of some technical faults, I had to film the interview with Streelytes’ CEO Rudi Richardson three times, which was very embarrassing of course. But Rudi’s controversial opinions regarding the government’s project shed light on key issues that would otherwise have remained unexposed, so it was well worth the effort I went through to get it right.

Don’t settle for the easy angle. A journalist role is to hold authorities to account.

9) Risk-taking versus safety

No matter how important the story, your safety is more. I learned this the hard way while secretly filming rough sleepers at a dark subway in Waterloo. One of them woke halfway through filming, grabbed his cane and gave chase. I ran as fast as I could and did not look back. I was terrified.

I used to tell people if I was careful all the time, there would be no story to tell, but even journalists with a strong competitive edge like me, who like to go all out to get the story, should balance out their desire to act impulsively with common sense and their instinct for self-preservation.

10) Social media as a source

One of the tools I found most useful and will definitely continue using is social media. Facebook and Twitter provided me with a great deal of information and tips I needed for my documentary. I followed live-streaming tweets from charities, noted what a couple of rough sleepers were saying on Twitter, even used Twitter to directly request interviews. One rough sleeper blocked me when I asked for an interview a second time though. There are limitations in trying to convey complex issues in 140 characters to a stranger.

11) Doing your homework pays off

But good journalism is dependent on total strangers’ cooperation. Doing a little bit of research on the interviewee, not just their organisation, is a great icebreaker. If possible, Google Image your interviewee before meeting them. People find it refreshing when you recognise them.

I found out that Marlon Nelson, the man who runs the winter night shelter in Hayes, had been invited to Number 10 and spoken to the Prime Minister before, so I mentioned this in passing when I met him. This pleased him so much he ended up providing me with lots of valuable contacts.

12) Keep the trickiest interview for later

At the heart of a good story is a good interview. But one’s interview techniques tend to develop with time. I conducted 13 lengthy ones for the documentary but my interview techniques weren’t spot on from the start. As I progressed, I learned to ask more concise and focussed questions.  For this reason, it is a good idea to schedule the more important interviews for a later stage in your project, when you may be better prepared, not only in terms of skills but also from the point of view of better understanding the subject of your research.

13) Breaking stereotypes

In the hope of breaking the stigma and negative image associated with the homeless, I included an interview with Henry, who works as a tour guide for Unseen Tours, an unconventional walking tour of the city from trough the eyes of the homeless. Henry was articulate and opinionated, not what most people expect from the homeless. Breaking people’s preconceived biases this way can be effective.

14) Anything else you’d like to add?

Never forget to ask this at the end of the interview. The answer to this question can often lead to other topics you may want to research or explore in future. I also asked my interviewees what [measures] they’d like to see put in place and I wasn’t shy about asking them for other sources I could use. If you do not ask, you do not get.

In part two, Kristina talks about the ethical considerations she faced when making her documentary on the homeless in London. 

Are you a documentary maker or perhaps a multi-media journalist interested in investigative journalism? What other practical tips can you add to this list? Share generously.

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