OXFORD MEDIA SOCIETY
Do you want to work in investigative journalism? Have you ever scrolled through the Columbia Journalism School website and wondered which tricks of the trade are taught? This week, we had the immense privilege of hosting Professor Steve Coll at the Oxford Media Society, in collaboration with the Oxford Union, and our members had the chance to learn some core principles of the profession.
Steve Coll is a two-time Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and staff-writer at The New Yorker, who previously worked as Managing Editor of the Washington Post and Dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism (2013 – 2022). He continues to teach at Columbia in a Faculty capacity.
After starting out as a journalist in Los Angeles, arriving in the city with his “last dollar”, Coll moved to the Post in 1985 and learnt to cover news by reporting on Wall Street, before being sent abroad as a foreign correspondent. In the years that followed, he gathered material about political developments in Afghanistan, which formed the basis for his book Ghost Wars, published in 2004 to take in the aftermath of 9/11.
In the Q&A section of his talk, Media Society members were keen to know what Coll would do if he were going into journalism today. With the decline of long-form narrative stories, most popular in the 90s, he said he’d now strongly consider a career in documentary-making; he also encouraged attendees to embrace the growing popularity of digital and data journalism.
However, Coll’s main advice for today’s aspiring journalists stands the test of time: report on topics which others haven’t covered, but which are relevant and in the public interest. At first, this sounded quite abstract. How do you find such topics? Go into vulnerable communities, speak to people living in areas where those in power are falling short of expectations; examine how and why authorities are failing to do their duty. With the decline of print media threatening local newspapers, investigative journalism on a community level is increasingly neglected – but it can nonetheless be a source of material for ambitious reporters.
After this, Coll delivered his workshop, giving Oxford students a taste of his teaching for investigative journalists.
These his top tips for pursuing a story:
Public records: a lot of information can be found in public records if you’re working on a piece involving stocks, litigation, real estate etc. In the UK, registries like Companies House are a good place to start for finding out about the financial status of corporations. EDGAR Company Filings works similarly in the US, allowing journalists to gather leads from the Security and Exchange Commission. Many criminal and civil court filings are also public (although only retrospectively in the UK, as a general rule). If you need to access them sooner, it’s worth contacting the relevant lawyers, as they’re often more than happy to speak to journalists.
Ping-pong: Coll advocates a metaphorical “ping-pong” strategy when researching a story. Find the public records on a particular event or company and highlight the names of people involved. Interview those people. Return to the public records and draw comparisons with what they say. This back-and-forth enables journalists to build the most comprehensive picture of what happened ahead of writing.
Freedom of Information Requests: when information isn’t available in the public domain, journalists can often request it under FOI legislation (which differs slightly according to country). While FOIs can take a long time to elicit results, Coll advocates them as a way to open conversations: following up on an FOI email request can be an entrée to interviews with new sources. Templates for FOIs can be easily accessed online.
These were just a few of Coll’s golden rules for data-gathering. Students also discussed how modern technology has opened other doors for investigative journalists: it is now common to use satellite imagery when reporting on warfare and natural disasters and to construct stories in reverse from photographic evidence, Bellingcat-style.
I personally left the talk feeling massively inspired to attend Coll’s graduate programme at Columbia. However, his parting advice holds true for journalists both inside and outside the classroom: there is no substitute for proactivity and fieldwork.
– Freya Jones, President Elect