Investigating the Unfamiliar

This workshop provides participants with a generic framework for planning and structuring research on new and unfamiliar topics. It focuses on adapting and expanding their previous knowledge, skills and methodologies to help navigate new investigation scenarios and contexts. The workshop is recommended for participants who have at least basic experience and awareness with conducting research online and / or in the field.

Workshop Overview

Topic: Planning and structuring research on new and unfamiliar topics


  • To provide participants with a framework and methodology for navigating and troubleshooting scenarios they might face while investigating new and unfamiliar topics.
  • To demonstrate the importance of developing a personalized plan of collecting information in new contexts.
  • To introduce participants to practices of archiving, indexing and making use of the material and data found in their research.
  • To encourage participants to share and expand experiences from previous investigations and research projects in order to help with new scenarios and practical activities.

General guidelines for trainers:

  • This workshop can be divided into 30-50 minute sessions. Between sessions, a short break or a quick energizer activity can be added.
  • For small group activities, divide participants into groups of 3-5 people.
  • You can assign roles depending on the number of participants. The roles can include: Facilitator, Recorder/Note-taker, Timekeeper, Presenter, Artist (whenever a visual presentation is required.)
  • For online workshops, we recommend sharing a timer on the screen during energizers and small group activities.
  • Whenever possible, adapt any advice, examples and cases to the context of your audience.

Mode of delivery: online or in-person

Workshop duration (without breaks): 3 hours and 30 minutes

Number of participants: 6 - 24

Related workshops: this workshop can be combined with "Evaluating Evidence and Information Sources", “Safety First: Basics of preventive digital safety”, "An Investigator’s Introduction to Risk Management", or other relevant workshops from our list.

Relevant Exposing the Invisible articles and guides:

Workshop activities and templates, to download:

Note on using online tools for workshop activities:

  • When suggesting or providing an online tool for collaborative activities, note-taking or presentations by participants, please make sure that it is freely available and functional for multiple users at the same time, and that it does not require participants to create personal accounts for one-time use (for instance, you could allocate a visitor’s access from one of the tools you already use).
  • Make sure that the tool / platform can be accessible to users with little or no technical experience. This will save time and ensure that each participant can comfortably contribute.
  • Inform participants in advance of the online tools you will use during the session, and allow them to become familiar by watching a tutorial if needed.

Learning Activities

Opening (25 minutes)

Workshop introduction

Read Watch Listen | 10 minutes

Instructions for trainer

  • Grab attention by posing a question relevant to how journalism and investigations are performing currently, choosing a relevant topic (e.g.: remote and on-the-ground reporting from Ukraine - see example for inspiration; climate crises and how they change reporting priorities, etc.).

  • Introduce yourself and the goals of the workshop.

  • [Optional] Introduce the source of the workshop material (Tactical Tech).

  • Introduce the workshop agenda.

  • Introduce any materials that will be used during the workshop.

  • If conducting the workshop online, provide a brief overview of the shared spaces where participants will collaborate (e.g. digital whiteboard, shared cloud folder/file, etc.).

  • Suggest ground rules for the workshop, including but not limited to: respect, establishing a safe and trusted environment for sharing experiences and questions, confidentiality and equality principles. Emphasize that there is “no such thing as ‘stupid’ questions” and that “everyone is an expert in their own context.”

    • Inform and remind participants not to share potentially harmful or graphic depictions or descriptions of events and material without the consent of the group. This is particularly important when discussing investigation cases and related evidence that may cause distress to some people.
    • Specific suggestions about setting up workshop ground rules are available in the Facilitator's Guide, section on "Delivering the Workshops".
Participants’ introductions and icebreaker

Produce | 15 minutes

Tools / Materials

  • Online: a shared online (white)board for easy collaboration (for instance Mural, Miro, etc.)
  • In-person / offline: physical whiteboard or large sheets of paper, pens, post-it notes, space/tables for working groups (if available).
  • “Activity Templates: Investigating the Unfamiliar” - section “Example of an investigation or research you conducted / wish to conduct”.


  • Make a quick round of introductions by asking participants to answer a couple of questions about themselves, their work, and/or their workshop expectations.

  • Follow up with a quick round of participants (and trainer) sharing one example of an investigation / research they conducted – or are planning / wish to conduct – on a topic or context that is unfamiliar to them.

    • [Optional, time allowing] Participants can also identify the main difficulties and challenges they expect to find, and main gaps in their current framework / routine of investigating.
    • Depending on the number of participants, this activity can be done in the main group or in sub-groups of 3-5 participants (10 minutes), where each group takes notes during discussions and briefly reports back to the large group.
  • With the use of a basic template on a shared online whiteboard or physical board/paper (if offline), participants list their examples and (optional) related challenges during this session.

    • These lists can be used as discussion points and examples throughout the workshop, as well as allowing participants to revisit and compare their initial input with their final post-workshop assessment.

Fragments of the inquisitive mind (1 hour)

Investigation routines: methods and data

Read Watch Listen | 10 minutes

Tools / Materials

  • presentation (slides or other materials) prepared in advance based on the content below.


Prepare and give a short introductory presentation focusing on the following points:

  • Our everyday routines – Introduce the individual investigator, researcher, journalist as an ”actor” who is partaking in multiple circles of information and data sharing.

  • Collecting information – Introduce the individual investigator, researcher, journalist as someone who proactively collects publicly available and privileged information and testimonies. List the set of methods commonly used and types of information / data commonly collected by most people in this process. This can be structured broadly as follows (you can also present only a general list that can be expanded by participants in the following activity):

    • Main methods and routines: can range from specific research techniques to broader practices, such as:

      • Online research methods (desktop research): advanced search, image verification, crowdsourcing data on social media, etc.
      • Field research methods: interviewing people, collecting environmental samples, recording video evidence, etc.
      • Open-Source intelligence / information gathering methods (OSINT)
      • Archiving material (online, offline): methods, good practices
      • Data collection: methods, habits
      • Structuring, indexing data and organizing data repositories: methods, good practices
      • Routines of enhancing performance during research: grab a coffee, go for a run, read an unrelated book, etc.
    • Types of data and information collected with these methods: can range from specific to general (e.g. from scribbled notes to specific data formats), such as:

      • Audio or video recordings
      • Datasets
      • Social media posts
      • News articles
      • Expert studies
      • Contacts of sources, etc.
  • Use an anecdote or paradigm (if possible from your own experience) to explain how cluttering of information occurs in the form of “hoarding” information that we as investigators usually end up collecting but not using (this can be in the form of bookmarks, screenshots, notes, articles downloaded from the internet, etc.)

  • Risk assessment and safety awareness - Introduce them as key practices from the beginning by emphasizing that everyone’s context and research methodology has an impact on the safety of investigators, of their sources and of the information they gather.

    • Risk assessment and safety awareness are crucial especially when investigating the unfamiliar.
  • [optional] Invite participants to quickly add to your list by asking them:

  • “How do you gather information?”

  • “What are the main considerations for you when exploring an unfamiliar topic or context?”

Visualizing the routines

Produce | 15 minutes

Tools / Materials

  • “Activity Templates - Investigating the Unfamiliar” - section “Individual Activity: Reflect on your work routines”
  • Notes of the “unfamiliar topics and challenges” exercise from the “Participants’ introductions” section above, to be used as reference /reminder and to build upon;
  • For online: a shared online (white)board for easy collaboration (for instance Mural, Miro, etc.), same as used in the Participants’ introductions section;
  • For offline: physical whiteboard or large sheets of paper, pens, post-it notes.

Depending on the number of workshop participants, this activity can be done individually or in teams of 3-5 participants where each group fills out one list/template based on its members’ input. Here recommend it as an individual exercise.


[10 minutes] Task

  • Ask participants to individually reflect on their own work and fill out a list that includes the following sections:

    • Main methods and routines you use in your work

      • based on the brief list presented before, participants can expand it and add methods / techniques and strategies they usually apply, from specific to general
    • Types of data and information you collect through these methods

      • similarly, from specific to general.

The methods and data in this case should not be linked to the topics from the first exercise; this should be a brainstormed list of general practices and data people collect.

[5 minutes] Debriefing

  • Ask a few volunteers to share what they listed.
Adapting and expanding the routines: our ‘toolkit’

Read Watch Listen | 10 minutes

Tools / Materials

  • presentation (slides or other materials) prepared in advance based on the content below.


Prepare and give a short presentation focusing on the following points:

  • Adapting our existing ‘toolkits’ to new topics, contexts, challenges:

    • Introduce the term ‘toolkit’, in this context, as a broad set of various research tools, information and communication platforms, information / data resources necessary to conduct an investigation. For example, our ‘toolkits’ may include:

      • guides and tutorials (print or digital) in various languages about a topic, technique or tool we use
      • software (open source or proprietary) for analysing, writing, storing information on our devices
      • online tools used to download material from one platform but that are insufficient for another platform (e.g. social media downloaders, file sharing tools),
      • public or commercial data sources (e.g. company registries, land records, statistics, maps, etc) available in various countries
      • digital safety tools and related communication and data storage tools that may differ in various contexts, etc.
      • mechanisms of access to public information from certain locations /countries, which may apply in some places but not in others due to legal and/or political conditions (e.g. General Data Protection Regulation / GDPR in the EU vs. the US or Russia).
    • Emphasize the fact that our ‘toolkits’ need to be literally and metaphorically translated, adapted and expanded to fit the investigative needs in different temporal and geographical contexts, formats (from print to digital), languages, topics, safety constraints, etc.

  • Reaching out to new people, institutions and other resources:

    • Use examples of how diverse sources and information repositories can be utilized to further enhance our investigative abilities, and how to incorporate them in our current workflows.

      • For example, mention an investigation or project where a journalist/researcher reached out to an online forum of experts on a specific topic, or consulted an online or offline community (e.g. a historic society for railways, a chess club in a remote small town, a forum of environmental scientists, etc .)
  • Invite participants to contribute by asking them:

    • "When did you have to completely switch or adapt your ‘toolkits’ to a new topic or context?"

      • This discussion will help to transition to the next activity.
Visualizing adaptability and potential

Produce | 25 minutes

Tools / Materials

  • “Activity Templates: Investigating the Unfamiliar” - section “Visualizing adaptability and potential”.
  • Notes and shared files/boards from previous exercises – to be used as reference/reminder and to build upon.
  • For online: a shared online (white)board for easy collaboration (for instance Mural, Miro, etc.).
  • For offline: physical whiteboard or large sheets of paper, pens, post-it notes.

Depending on the number of workshop participants, this activity can be done individually or in teams of 3-5 participants where each group fills out one list/template based on its members’ input. Here recommend it as an individual exercise.


[10 minutes]

Ask participants to individually reflect on their own work and to fill out a list that includes the following sections:

  1. Toolkits that they have utilized in their work so far but would be deemed insufficient for research in new / different contexts, frameworks, topics. This should include both language considerations and the technical or other characteristics of the toolkits used.

    • For example, a new investigation would require access to specific company records in Seychelles but the local official registry restricts access to such data to the public, including journalists.
  2. Communities and actors that they could reach out to for the purpose of their upcoming investigations, but that feel unfamiliar or difficult to access for a variety of reasons.

    • For example, a new investigation on elections fraud in Venezuela could use a source inside the Electoral Commission but this is deemed risky both for the potential source and for the investigator.

[15 minutes] Debriefing and discussion

  • Reflect upon the input provided by participants:

    • start by reviewing the different inputs shared, firstly the toolkits, then the communities and actors.
  • Emphasize some interesting findings and invite participants to share and discuss the main challenges they perceive.

  • Facilitate discussion and provide feedback.

  • [optional, time-allowing] Ask two volunteers (one for each input type) to categorize and cluster similar entries, highlighting the overlaps between the toolkits and the communities, where applicable.

- Suggested break (if you have not allocated one already before this activity) -

The unfamiliar within our reach (1 hour and 50 minutes)

Identifying and approaching a case study

Collaborate | 35 minutes

Tools / Materials

  • “Activity Templates: Investigating the Unfamiliar” - section “Identify and approach a case study”.
  • For online: a shared online (white)board for collaboration (for instance Mural, Miro, etc.); or a shared (cloud based) set of blank Powerpoint slides / Word files for a presentation; virtual break-out rooms.
  • For offline: physical whiteboards / large sheets of paper, pens, post-it notes; or any accessible shared online tool for designing projected presentations (as above); separate tables or areas for working groups in the available physical space.


  • Divide participants into groups of 3-5 members and provide the following guidelines and timeline:

[10 minutes] – Case study and research questions

  • Each group will choose one case / topic from the icebreaker notes on unfamiliar investigations. If you anticipate this part might take too much time, you can allocate a case to each group.

    • They will work together to identify the research potential for this topic.
    • Warn participants to share and discuss only projects they are comfortable disclosing to others, to avoid risks to safety, confidentiality or conflict of interest between participants.
  • Each group has to identify at least one key research question they would like to investigate and answer in relation to their case / topic.

    • Choosing two different research questions relevant to the same topic may help to compile and present the overlap of methodologies and tools used to tackle different sub-topics of an investigation.

[20 minutes] – Strategy

  • Upon deciding the question(s), each group prepares a 3-minute presentation outlining the different ways in which their research question can be approached, to be presented in the next workshop section.

  • Task guidelines:

    • Outline the strategy of approaching the question(s) and researching the topic — including research methods, information/data collection plan, reaching out to human sources, etc. — rather than actively answering the questions. This is always dependent on the topic chosen by the groups.
    • Consider the challenges that the chosen strategy can bring and how to address them.
    • Consider the risks and safety precautions that might be needed in a specific case.
    • Groups are free to select the style, format and tools for their presentations, e.g. Powerpoint presentation, discussion, Q&A, interview, etc.
  • Briefly join each group while they discuss and prepare to check on their progress and to clarify potential doubts or questions.

If participants seem to require more support or details, you can illustrate what a strategy entails by providing a list of guiding questions they can address in their presentation. For example:

  • Where would be your starting point?
  • What methods will you use?
  • What tools will you use?
  • How will you collect the information?
  • How will you reach out to the communities and actors?
  • ...

[5 minutes] Debriefing

  • Following the activity, ask one member from each group to briefly describe the most interesting part of the task. Did they learn something new?
  • Presentations take place in the next session.
Icebreaker: “I’d offer a coffee to...”

Read Watch Listen | 10 minutes


  • Invite each participant – in relation to their current group projects – to say whom they would offer a cup of coffee to.
  • This can be a hypothetical person they would like to reach out to for their knowledge and skills, not someone specific.
  • For instance, “I would offer a coffee to someone who knows more than I do about landlord leases in medieval times,” or “I would offer a coffee to someone who could help me understand how to interview people fleeing from war.”
Presentations: Identifying and approaching a case study

Collaborate | 20 minutes


  • Boards or presentations created by the working groups during the previous task.

[15 minutes] Group presentations


  • Ask each group to give a maximum 3-minute presentation on how they approached the research question(s) identified above.
  • Depending on the number of participants and groups, you may need to allocate more time for this workshop unit.

[5 minutes] Debriefing

  • Provide feedback to groups, commenting and adding to their ideas.
  • Invite participants to ask questions or share suggestions related to each case presentation.
Tackling the unfamiliar: the four “must have’s”

Read Watch Listen | 10 minutes


  • Prepare and give a short presentation focusing on four essential elements or ingredients that need to be addressed when setting out to investigate something unfamiliar, namely:

    1. the people and communities around a topic
    2. the places, geographical context of a topic
    3. the audio-visual materials, evidence related to a topic
    4. the documents and other information or data resources related to a topic (contracts, press releases, articles, reports, written assessments, message logs, etc.).
  • Set the framework for each aspect and provide brief examples from your own experience or from the cases explored by participants in their group task.

  • Prepare a slide or printed sheet summing up the four elements and a framework / template for elaborating them further, to use in the next Discussion exercise.

- Suggested break —

The Stones Unturned

Discuss | 25 minutes

Tools / Materials

  • “Activity Templates: Investigating the Unfamiliar” - section “The stones unturned”.
  • For online: a shared online (white)board for collaboration (for instance Mural, Miro, etc.); or a shared (cloud based) editable Word files for collaborative notes.
  • For offline: physical whiteboard / large sheet of paper, pens, post-it notes.


[20 minutes]

  • In the “plenary” room/space, based on the outputs of the previous group task and presentations, invite participants to a facilitated discussion about the four “must have” elements outlined previously:

    1. the people and communities around a topic
    2. the places, geographical context of a topic
    3. the audio-visual materials, evidence related to a topic
    4. the documents and other text-based information or data resources
  • Discuss each element for 5 minutes

  • For each element, assign a participant to facilitate the discussion in turns (in total four facilitators), while you take notes of the points shared by participants using a whiteboard or online file. Cluster the ideas in a list/table such as the one provided in the activity templates file.

  • Guiding questions for discussion – to be addressed by the volunteer facilitators:

    • Bad practices vs. Good practices, and their results (is it worth it, and if so, why?)
    • How do you prepare yourself in order to be efficient when reaching out to sources in a new context?
    • Where do we put an end to our investigation, where does the “rabbit hole” end?
  • Provide further prompts to the facilitators and participants if needed.

[5 minutes] Debriefing

  • Ask participants to comment on what was shared in the discussion and related notes. Have they learned something new?
Wrap up the exercise

Read Watch Listen | 10 minutes

Tools / Materials

  • Shared white board / sheets online or offline (as used before)
  • Slides (or other presentation material) prepared in advance


Prepare and give a brief presentation wrapping up the previous discussion. Highlight the following points:

  • There are overlaps between methodologies and their outputs, and mentalities that can be used in approaching a topic.

  • People, local organisations and communities are often key representatives of both already amassed knowledge and knowledge production in the present and future.

  • One problem - many solutions” or “several problems - one solution” — certain methods can resolve more than one problem, yet other methods might be fit to address only a specific question and context.

  • Use the previous exercises in this workshop to remind participants how online and offline spaces of exchange promote the idea of input and structuring of information.

  • Safety First! - remind participants that risk assessment and safety awareness are crucial for any investigation, especially when diving into the “unfamiliar.”

    • Local people, organisations and communities can be a valuable source of knowledge about such risks and sometimes they face major risks themselves.
    • Emphasize that “risk is inherited” and can be transferred from the investigator to their collaborators and sources, and vice-versa.
    • Consult the “Safety First” and “Risk Management” workshops as well as our basic “Safety First guide” for tips when addressing safety.
    • Share this “Safety First guide” and this “Risk Assessment article” with participants for a follow-up reading on the topic.

Closure (15 minutes)

Final Activity: Takeaway poster

Produce | 5 minutes


  • Shared drawing pad / slide / whiteboard (online)
  • Whiteboard / flip-chart paper, post-its, markers (offline)


  • Create a poster of the ideal community:

    • Let’s make our optimal community of people that helps us with investigations”
  • Invite participants to add keywords or drawings as characteristics of this ideal / imaginary community on a blank board (online / offline).

  • This can then be downloaded or photographed to be taken away as a reminder.


Read Watch Listen | 10 minutes


  • (optional) Shared online or offline board / sheets from previous exercises.


  • Wrap up the workshop and sum up its contents, making reference to the content that was created in individual and group exercises.

  • Encourage participants to ask questions or give some final tips.

  • Run a quick review of the session. Each participant would say:

    • one thing they found very good about the session and
    • one thing they would improve for the next time
  • Share contact information if relevant, and any follow-up details.

Contact Us

Please reach out to us at Exposing the Invisible if you:

  • have any questions about this workshop plan and facilitation guidelines,
  • use this workshop plan and want to share feedback and suggestions that can help to improve them,
  • adapt the workshop plan to a specific context and want to share the results with us,
  • want to suggest new activities, tips or examples that can be added to this workshop,
  • want to share your expertise and collaborate with us on developing and testing new workshops.

Contact: (GPG Key / fingerprint: BD30 C622 D030 FCF1 38EC C26D DD04 627E 1411 0C02).

Credits and Licensing

CC BY-SA 4.0

This content is produced by Tactical Tech's Exposing the Invisible project, and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license

  • Workshop author: Phevos Simeonidis
  • Instructional design: A. Hayder, Laura Ranca
  • Editorial and content: Christy Lange, Laura Ranca
  • Graphic design: Yiorgos Bagakis
  • Website development: Laurent Dellere, Saqib Sohail
  • Project coordination and supervision: Christy Lange, Laura Ranca, Lieke Ploeger, Marek Tuszynski, Safa Ghnaim, Wael Eskandar

This resource has been developed as part of the Collaborative and Investigative Journalism Initiative (CIJI) co-funded by the European Commission under the Pilot Project: "Supporting investigative journalism and media freedom in the EU" (DG CONNECT).

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.

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