Many investigators are searching for new ways to reach a wider public and create impact, as the consumers of long-form or investigative reporting are harder to find. Different ways – some crazy, some brilliant, some both brilliant and crazy – have already been tried, with varying results. This article dives into some “traditional” as well as some unexpected ways of displaying investigations to the public, like opera, slam poetry, puppet theatre, comics and even circus. What does it take for the tireless investigators and their work to reach more audiences? Let’s discover new approaches to tell an investigative story or showcase data and findings.
By Ricardo Ginés
Looking for a way
In an era where investigative journalism is thriving – some referring to it as the “golden age” or the “golden era” of global muckraking – it becomes, ironically, more and more difficult to stand out from the crowd.
Many investigators (journalists, researchers, artists, community investigators) are searching for new ways to achieve impact, as the consumers of long-form or investigative reporting are harder to find.
Why? Often, the required meticulousness of investigative research and reporting, focused on verifying and displaying fact after fact, seeks to be, consciously, as far as possible from entertainment.
But instead, why not consider Thomas Mann’s stance in the foreword of The Magic Mountain novel (1924), when he points out that: “We do not fear being called meticulous, inclining as we do to the view that only the exhaustive can be truly interesting”?
Thus, the question arises: could there be other ways of transmitting the content of investigations, both serious and entertaining?
Indeed, many different ways – some crazy, some brilliant, some both brilliant and crazy – have already been tried, with different results.
Let's take a look at them.
1. Traditional: article, non-fiction book, movie, documentary, TV show
Let's start with the traditional forms or what can be referred to as the “classics”, to show how tradition is shaping other forms of investigative reporting creativity in modern times. Or as the poet and essayist T. S. Elliot put it:
“We shall not cease from exploration,
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.” (T.S. Eliot, from “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets)
When we think of investigative reporting, one of the first things that come to mind is, of course, the Watergate scandal. This was primarily a series of articles printed in a newspaper (the Washington Post, 1972-1974) that lead to the resignation of the then President of the United States, Richard Nixon, in 1974. So, being originally a series of print newspaper pieces, it was followed by a non-fiction book and then a famous movie. Indeed, the film “All the president’s men” (Alan J. Pakula, 1976) is based on a 1974 book with the same title written by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the two Washington Post journalists who investigated the scandal. The scandal and the related investigation have lived a long life on the screens including in documentary format, as another classic approach of reaching audiences - see the 784 Days That Changed America: From Watergate to Resignation” aired on the BBC in 1982, or the more recent one “Watergate, Or: How We Learned to Stop an Out of Control President” from 2018.
The genre of the movie is still, up to today, one of the most enduring classical forms that can transmit the content of investigations. Entire film festivals are now dedicated to investigations, for instance the Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival in the US (with an increasingly global participation) and the Investigative Film Festival Skopje (now called Media Festival Skopje, to include more genres), in North Macedonia. But with the introduction of livestream TV channels, an investigation like the one of a sexual violence case in 2015 covered by ProPublica and Marshall Project can nowadays be successfully turned into a Netflix adaptation like “Unbelievable”.
Moreover, a very recent initiative launched in 2023 by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the Gabo Foundation - Floodlight - aims to bring the tireless work of investigators exposing cross-border organised crime and corruption on the screens of a wider public by creating "a symbiotic relationship between investigative journalism and fiction filmmaking that will result in storytelling that entertains, educates, and inspires."
Of course, in the times when the Watergate scandal erupted, there would be, besides the Trial Tapes themselves, radio-shows about it. However, what is new in our era in terms of new genres is the emergence of the podcast. This differs from radio communication in that it allows listeners to access audio shows online at any time.
Also, the success of true-crime podcasts has developed further the new phenomena. It is very common now to transform an investigation result into a podcast as one of its references and many media outlets and NGOs are running their own such series. For instance, the online investigations platform Bellingcat has turned many of their elaborate Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) investigations into podcast episodes, OCCRP has recently (in 2023) launched its “Dirty Deeds Podcast” revisiting selected long-form cross-border investigations to make them more widely accessible, while the Intercept have their own podcast series “Deconstructed.” Thus, a complete universe of successful investigative podcasts has come into being. Meanwhile, Tactical Tech’s Exposing the Invisible project has a podcast with and about investigators.
Image: screenshot from the “Exposing the Invisible” Podcast series with investigators 2023, Tactical Tech: https://exposingtheinvisible.org/en/podcasts/megha-rajagopalan. Illustration: Ann Kiernan.
Frequently, for the success of a podcast riffs and special music effects are needed. There are complete playlists that suggest which sound bites are best suited to your investigative podcast. This makes it evident that one should be very conscious of the importance of music in conveying investigative journalism.
On another note, it is not entirely uncommon that investigative journalists themselves like to play in music bands as other human beings would do.
What is more uncommon, though, is that musicians themselves are not only willing to share the content of investigations through their music, lyrics and sounds, but actually inspire music bands for new themes and names. And yet, this is what has happened with the investigation into the Panama Papers that has produced a long list of songs and even bands named after them.
The impact of investigative journalism can also be reflected when a musician becomes directly inspired by the work of a reporter, like in this posthumous way by the rapper Smarty in his homage to investigative journalist Norbert Zongo, editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper L’Indepéndent (The Independent) in Burkina Faso, assassinated in 1998.
A massive way of reflecting this inspiration has been achieved by the investigative journalism organization called The Outlaw Ocean Project. Hundreds of musicians across the world specialized in very different types of musical genres have joined the challenge to help the offshore reporting become more well-known. The Outlaw Ocean Project’s goal is, as they state themselves, to go “beyond traditional journalism, to reach a younger and more international audience… to convert our reporting into other forms such as music, animation, mural art, stage performance, and podcasts”.
Image: screenshot from the website of The Outlaw Ocean Project, taken by Exposing the Invisible on 14 January 2024.
4. Performing arts: theatre, reporter slam, circus-performance, puppet-theatre
Music is considered to be one of the seven arts. Film is sometimes seen as the eighth, while comic books take the ninth.
Indeed, if we go through the traditional list (architecture, painting, sculpture, music, performance, cinema and literature), we will find new candidates of the arts that have already brought new audiences to the investigative field. We will see this is precisely the case with the comics and graphic novels and even with the investigative poetry.
But let's focus first on one of the main success stories when it comes to new ways of conveying investigative content: the performing arts.
Ranging from reporter slam and puppet theatre to circus arts, all derive from the main and ancient field: the theatre. Theatre is as old as humanity itself and encompasses many different combinations of dance, music, speech, song and gesture.
Actually, many different experiments such as the “Documentary Theatre" or the so-called “Living Newspaper” (born during the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia) have tried to present factual information on current events in a theatrical way. In many ways as we will see, the theatre stage becomes the blank page of the journalist and the investigator, being the unknown, the unimagined, the real test.
Such is the work, for example, of the Germany-based Investigative Theatre that portrays in-depth journalistic results through the production of plays. So it happens for example in the “patriotic Western” with the title “Wir waren nie weg” (We never left), which deals with the continuity of right-wing terror in Germany from the Oktoberfest bombing in 1980 to the series of racist murders by the Neo-Nazi terrorist group National Socialist Underground (NSU) between 2000 and 2007.
The London based Bureau of Investigative Journalism has also experimented in this direction. With "Refuge Woman", they dealt with the drama of domestic violence.
Image from the CumEx-Files based theatre play. Photo by Benjamin Schubert for CORRECTIV. Source: https://correctiv.org/aktuelles/cumex-files/2018/11/29/theater-tut-was-journalismus-nicht-kann/?lang=de
While in “die Redaktion” the theatre even goes into the inner workings of an investigative media platform itself like the Austrian investigative outlet Dossier.
The journalist Sarah Shroud used her trauma from spending 410 days in solitary confinement as a political prisoner in Iran as a prerogative to investigate the issues of solitary confinement in the US. The result of her three years in-depth-research conducting interviews with over 75 prisoners across the U.S is the play “The Box” (Directed by Michael John Garcés, written by Sarah Shroud, 2016), a piece that portrays several people held in solitary confinement in US prisons. The play was even performed in the former penitentiary on Alcatraz Island.
Talking about appearing on stage, other more direct forms have been tried.
What if the investigators themselves take the result of their work directly on stage and talk about the whole process? Alone on stage, telling a story without any costumes, puppets, sets or professional actors. This is the idea behind what in German-speaking countries has become reporter slam. Actually, it draws its inspiration from poetry slam but in this case, reporters get on stage and present their investigations as fun and engaging as possible, with rhymes or jokes included. The audiences or a jury then get to vote for their favourite slam reporter and story.
Another rather unexplored field when it comes to the performing arts and investigations is the universe of the circus.
Because of its innovative spirit, circus has always embraced new experiments. Nowadays for example, same as Pina Bausch did with dance – fusing dance with theatre, there are artistic experiments to mix modern dance and circus: cirque danse.
In this regard, circus artist Roxana Küwen (specialized in trapeze and foot juggling) has been one of the pioneers able to translate long-time research into a circus performance. Based on historical research and witness statements about circus during the time of German Nazism, the project CiNS aims precisely to translate evidence and narratives into circus work on stage. Roxana, with the help of circus and theatre educators is developing artistic outreach for these findings.
4D. Puppet theatre
When it comes to puppet mastering in investigative journalism, it is relatively common to see the phenomenon linked to a certain way of conceiving capitalism – the puppets and the strings. So there is no surprise when one of the decisive titles that reflect “follow the hidden money trails”-techniques has the title "The Puppet Masters: How the Corrupt Use Legal Structures to Hide Stolen Assets and What to Do About It.” – In this case, we are talking about an eye-opening World Bank report but let’s see what real puppets can do.
Puppet artistry can be effective not only for kids but also for adult audiences. Take the Schubert Theatre in Vienna/Austria that is specialized in this kind of performances and has created shows and installations having the figure of the late open-information access activist and researcher Aaron Swartz at their centre.
But one may not expect that puppet mastery could be a way to transmit the results of investigative reporting. And still, it is what the puppet master Raven Kaliana, director of a project called Puppet (R)Evolution has done several times, raising awareness around human trafficking and child sexual exploitation through puppetry for adults, as she explains in this audio interview with Shirish Kulkarni. Raven’s film “Hooray for Hollywood” is on this topic, and puppet-based. It was shown at the UN in Geneva and at the Commission on the Status of Women in New York. It was used in training events at universities, drama-therapy programmes, conferences, and charities around the UK and internationally. Also, in Taiwan in 2019-2020, she collaborated with child protection charity ECPAT and an investigative journalist at Right Plus to help expose these types of crimes in the country. This has helped influenced legal change, strengthening the laws to protect children.
5. Investigative poetics
Having already mentioned reporter slam as coming from the tradition of poetry slam, one could not forget to mention poetry itself. Actually, the very same genre of theatre dealing with investigative results has gone one step further.
For example, the play “This is Home” connected poets with theatre to create something unique that would be able to transmit on stage the research of reporter Amy Julia Harris about the decay in public housing projects in Richmond California, USA. For this play, the “Story Work Theatre” with its motto “Changing the way we experience journalism” deliberately worked with poets from Richmond California, to be able to give a stronger voice to the contents.
In this regard, the combination of poetry and investigative reporting, as with music, is not so rare. Reporters can also be poets in their free time, like Marcos García Rey, an award-winning investigative journalist who has published several books of poems, mostly inspired by his reporting work.
On a closer look, poetry and investigative reporting are not so much distanced, as the journalist and the poet are similarly looking for the precise word, seeking a very careful use of language to display issues and phenomena. Very often, fewer words make more sense for both.
In this regard, and for the training of young journalists, probably nothing is better than to recommend reading poetry books, indeed. At the same time, the now already traditional battle-raps by rappers have inspired annual “fighting-words” events like the “Fighting Words: Poetry in Response to Current Events” contest for students in the US, featured by the Pulitzer Center.
But what is rarer is that one author seeks to mix both poetry and investigative reporting in one. And yet this is exactly what Ed Sanders, a beat poet, did with his “Investigative Poetry” Manifesto (1976) creating a movement that lasts until today. One can encounter in it assertive phrases as: “My statement is this: that poetry, to go forward, in my view, has to begin a voyage into the description of historical reality.” Or take this “Investigative poetry: that poetry should again assume responsibility for the description of history.”
A long time has passed since the manifesto erupted into the world of poetry but still, some are following the same lead today, seeing themselves in this very own tradition of poet investigators. In the long run, and as Ed Sanders himself put it: “It is not an untoward spew of gibberish to predict a ‘golden age’ for the public presentation of verse.”
6. Humour: cartoons, satire, slap stick comedy
When it comes to new ways of sharing investigations with the public, one can only hope that they won't be too dull for the general public. One of the best ways to keep investigative reporting entertaining, is the use of humour. This is commonly exemplified by the use of cartoons in newspapers. Very often the content of a single punch-line in a humorous cartoon does more to grab the attention of a reader, as well as help them to retain the content unconsciously. Arguably, this method can be more effective to wider audiences than a thoroughly fact-checked article full of footnotes.
So when reporting about corruption, for example, and writing long lines full of facts that inspire the end of insomnia for everyone, why not use comedy in addition, or (sometimes) instead? And actually, many actions of the political scene are indeed unwillingly comical.
- "I don't make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts" (https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/12/06/facts)
Indeed one of the most distinguished outlets consciously mixing investigations with humour is called Private Eye, in the UK, an online and print magazine successfully mixing investigative journalism with satire, cartoons and gossip since 1961. So when the Panama Papers were being disclosed in 2016 it came as no surprise that Private Eye, together with the BBC and The Guardian were among the selected outlets to reveal the scoop.
John Oliver, for his British TV-counterpart, is also specialized in this kind of humour from the result of investigations. Actually, Oliver's team at “Last Week Tonight”, with the private channel HBO, enjoys a research team of its own composed of investigative journalists.
Other countries have their own.
In Germany, for example, this synergy of investigations and comedy is impersonated by journalist and satirist Jan Böhmermann on show with the public broadcaster ZDF. Böhmermann does not only comment in a satirical way about the current (and other) news backed up by a team of yet again investigators, he was also responsible of publishing a series of NSU (Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund) files classified as secret that are directly linked to Neo-Nazi terror (NSU was a far-right German neo-Nazi terrorist group). When he did so in October 2022 together with the investigative platform “Ask the State”/Frag den Staat in his program “ZDF Magazin Royale”, he caused an uproar and even received death threats. Far from giving up, his latest programs investigate these very same threats in depth.
Now back to the United States: a particular case of interest in this mix of humour and investigations takes place with The Yes Men whose 2009 film "The Yes Men Fix the World" was greeted in a Berlinale review with the line “Investigative journalism was never as entertaining as THE YES MEN FIX THE WORLD”. Indeed the Yes Men see themselves in the tradition of so-called "culture jamming", a form of disruption of consumerism that has its roots in the French avant-garde group Situationist International.
Image: screenshot from the Yes Men website: https://theyesmen.org/, taken by Exposing the Invisible on 14 January 2024.
7. Comics, graphics, games
7A. Comics / graphic novels
In this regard, dealing with journalistic research, the investigative initiative Convoca in Peru has been able to form up a group of 14 illustrators, developers, reporters, and editors to develop a comic series with the title “Expediente tóxico” (Toxic file) about people exposed to heavy metals from mining and industry.
Meanwhile, the German investigative newsroom CORRECTIV has exposed the ultra-right wing ideology that lies behind several massacres, killings and other crimes of Neo-Nazis in its successful graphic novel "Weisse Wölfe” (White Wolves).
And in one of the great countries of the comic art, France, the investigative outlet Mediapart has also decided to adapt this visual language for their own investigations. Here are some of its albums having to do with the ultra-right thinking and an investigation on French President Emmanuel Macron. Considering what comic strips can do for investigative journalism, Mediapart’s experience shows more fluidity as a result, and the investigations tend also to become “more accessible” and “pedagogic.”
7B. Video / visuals
A lot of thinking has gone on lately into trying to find ways of using videos to reach new investigative audiences. But, when speaking of visuals and investigative reporting, the creativity and expertise of Forensic Architecture has taken this to a new level. With a complex mixture of 3D Mapping, audio-analyses, mix of footage and traditional research skills, its result have more in common with an art form (mixed with forensic science) than a regular visual form.
Image: screenshot from the Forensic Architecture website, “Restituting Evidence” investigation, taken by Exposing the Invisible on 14 January 2024.
7C. Video games
In the struggle to reach younger audiences, one constellation of new possibilities becomes almost self-evident: computer games. These have been investigated as an important industry but what is rather unusual is the gamification of deep journalistic research.
In a ground-breaking Medium article from 2014 - "Why we decided to gamify investigative journalism at Al Jazeera” - the broadcaster and current director of Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, Juliana Ruhfus, talks about the search for an “original, interactive, investigative story that would transform viewers into players and capture their attention.” Thus, the collection of evidence of an investigation into illegal fishing in Sierra Leone done for People & Power was transformed into a point-scoring game on a status bar. For upcoming journalists that started to play, this had a precious side-effect of learning the importance of gathering evidence in investigations. Its success paved the way for a second game in Al Jazeera in 2016: "Hacked - Syria’s Electronic Armies".
In this regard, there is even an investigative media outlet that regularly transforms its stories to video games thanks to an application. “Misinformer”, a text-based adventure that puts players in the shoes of an investigative journalist, could help fund its real reports, the founders hope.
And, if you feel adventurous about finances or want to test your knowledge, you can put yourself in the shoes of powerful characters while experimenting with various tax evasion options in these Panama Papers-inspired games produced by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ): "Stairway to Tax Heaven" and "Continent of Secrets: Uncovering Africa’s offshore empires".
Finding a way
The pursuit to captivate audiences and convey crucial investigation findings has led to a fascinating array of creative approaches. As the landscape of storytelling evolves, investigators are urged to redefine narratives and engage with audiences in new ways.
From the traditional realms of articles, books, movies, and documentaries to the dynamic worlds of podcasts, music, performing arts, investigative poetics, humour and games, people are breaking new ground to tell the world the stories that matter most.
This article is just a starting point for considering other formats and ways of sharing investigation findings. There is more out there to explore and to be inspired by.
What new and unexpected ways of sharing information and stories have you seen that inspired you?
Credits and Licensing
CC BY-SA 4.0
This article is produced by Tactical Tech's Exposing the Invisible (ETI) project, and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license
- Author: Ricardo Ginés
- Editorial support & copy-editing: Laura Ranca, Jasmine Erkan
- Visuals: ETI
Contact: eti-at-tacticaltech.org (GPG Key / fingerprint: BD30 C622 D030 FCF1 38EC C26D DD04 627E 1411 0C02).
This event is part of the CIJI project co-funded by the European Union.
Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.