Communicating with a Purpose: Investigative Storytelling

“Communicating and narrating our investigation is key, it is one of the pillars of our work as investigators. Communication might be a double-bladed weapon used to create false narratives and to manipulate, but in the hands of the right people, in our hands as investigators, communicating with a purpose is essential to achieve change, raise awareness or bring people together, among other things” (Nuria Tesón.) - Here is an exploration of possible storytelling approaches and tips for choosing a path that works best for your investigation.

This article provides a snapshot from Nuria Tesón’s talk on “Communicating with a purpose: Investigative Storytelling” at the Investigation is Collaboration conference organised by Exposing the Invisible Project on 2-6 August 2021.

by Di Luong

“Anyone of us could be an investigator as we are essentially people who tell people about what happens to people,” says multimedia journalist Nuria Tesón as she describes how we are all natural communicators and storytellers. But investigations are labor intensive, and often carried out under difficult circumstances. For those reasons, and to increase their impact and reach, investigators need to aim beyond the journalistic bubble and include a wider community by involving skills and approaches specific to anthropologists, artists, technologists and other fields of practice.

Nuria Tesón outlines several practical recommendations that can help you to adopt an investigative storytelling approach that is unique to your context and to the audiences you aim to reach.

Define your goal

What do you want to achieve?

Having a goal in mind will help you select a communication and storytelling style that best aligns with the actions you need to perform in order to reach your goal.

Goal(s)could be to inform,raise awareness or expose a wrongdoing, to advocate to built a legal case or pass legislation, to raise funds for victims of wrongdoing, to raise support to continue an investigation, to make information available to other investigators, to hold wrongdoers accountable, or to counter a prevalent narrative, among many others.

Nuria considers that the role of a journalist is not to mobilize or campaign like an activists. However, journalists have the responsibility to inform people within a society so that others could use the evidence to actively engage in the social and political process. Key questions to keep in mind for staying objective in cases where it’s difficult to find the middle ground when setting your goals are:

  • What type of evidence do I need to gather?
  • What do I need in order to communicate and share this evidence further?

Identify your audience

The goal in combination with knowing the audience you aim to reach help determine the appropriate format and method of communicating and storytelling. If the audience you are trying to reach may be illiterate or lack electricity, consider organizing a drama or theatre play to reach a wider community. If you are an artist or can collaborate with an artist, consider adapting your findings to be exhibited at a museum for a broader and more diverse audience reach.

Use many formats to tell the same story

The format does not need to be a classical, written format. As seen above, some audience may not even benefit from that at all. It could be formulated as an alternative narrative: an exhibition, a workshop, a performance in the street, or another approach that relates to how you plan to interact with the audience. Ideally, you could combine multiple formats and channels of communication for a wider impact. When you share your narrative online, someone else can use the information to develop their campaign or expand it by investigating further. Using a variety of tools and tactics would only benefit your investigation.

Create new narratives

In cases of long-term conflicts, the communities involved may potentially become forgotten by the media and fade away from public attention. It is particularly important to find new nuances to what is happening in order to keep the public attention active on those situations. Most investigations need time and huge personal investment as investigators work to imagine different pathways to communicating a story from different angles in an accessible way. When developing your own investigation and creating its narrative, look at how similar stories have been traditionally communicated, add your own questions and angles and infuse those stories with new perspectives.

  • For instance, Nuria Tesón and her collaborator, photographer Miguel Ángel Sánchez, used fine art photography to reveal issues that nobody was looking at in the aftermath of the November 2012 confrontation between Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza: “Operation Pillar of Defense”. After covering the war, they decided to go back and portray the people they met during the conflict in order to find new ways to engage and inform far-away audiences who had been saturated with the conflict news and reporting provided by mainstream media. The resulted project- a fine art photography series accompanied by personal stories and events documented by the portrayed people themselves- emerged from their “will to portray Gaza when no one is looking at her but also an exploration on how siege and daily conflict affect human beings psychologically. The portraits are and intimate approach to the subjects that verge on the madness and obscurity that lays in the different layers of their consciousness, like a continuous nightmare that they face fearless but disturbed.”

Consider therefore how your investigation could connect, engage, or reach different audiences and collaborators. Choosing an alternative storytelling approach may help your investigation engage with a new or a wider audience, keep the public’s attention active for longer,bypass censorship more easily, and empower individuals to share their stories in their own style.

Take Nuria’s advice on this:

  • “Whatever information we have or get involved with, any type of investigation is like a piece of wood. We can make an ashtray or a beautiful sculpture.”

Nuria Tesón is an independent multimedia journalist and writer, co-founder of the MásTesón collective. She is based in the Middle East where she covered the most newsworthy events of the region for the past 12 years. She has investigated among others: the trail of mercenaries in Libya during the war, the activities of fighters being trained by the Libyan militias in the following years as well as the Al Qaeda infiltration in the East of Libya; the connections between terrorist attackers of the March 2004 Madrid train bombings with Spanish foreign fighters in Syria; fracking; political corruption in Spain and Romania; the destruction of native rainforest in Brazil's Amazon basin and its impact on the local communities. Her work has been featured in Time, CNN, Al Jazeera, AJ+, The New York Times, France 24, El País, and Le Monde among others, and exhibited on several continents. She collaborates with universities, institutions and private entities creating content for seminars, workshops, exhibitions and performances around journalism, conflict zone coverage, the use of Art and Journalism to achieve structural changes, media and conflict, coverages with a gender perspective. Since 2018 she is an 'Aspen Young European Leaders' Fellow.

This article is part of a series of resources and publications produced by Exposing the Invisible during a one-year project (September 2020 - August 2021) supported by the European Commission (DG CONNECT)

European Commission

This text reflects the author’s view and the Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

More about this topic