Investigation is Collaboration: How to Make It Work

By Ankita Anand

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In Short: Never investigate alone. Collaboration is essential to your safety, well-being and effectiveness as an investigator, no matter the context. But what does it mean to collaborate and what kind of collaborations are possible? This guide will help you plan, organise and run your collaboration with investigators, sources and others in order to make the most out of your own skills and the expertise of others on your team.

Never investigate alone!

If anything, this is what this guide would like you to remember forever.

Collaborations take place in our personal and professional lives every day. If we talk of the latter, we see that in any workplace there are people with different skill sets and experiences who come together to meet a common goal and agenda. In the context of investigations, collaboration usually happens when a group of people with varying backgrounds are concerned about an issue of public interest. But since each person’s skill set and capacity are limited, everyone needs the help of others who bring their own expertise and resources to the table. Even if a person has a diverse set of skills, bringing in different people also helps each person give undivided time and attention to their specific tasks, which is especially important for projects of a larger scale.

Not everyone on the team has to be directly engaged in investigating the subject itself. Essential collaborators could include people who effectively present the findings of the investigation to an organisation, government, court of law, or the general public. Another example is someone who regularly works with data, like an analyst or an economist, who could help the team make sense of the numbers involved in a corruption case. And a graphics designer could know how to present it to an audience in a simple and comprehensible manner. A visual artist and/or a photographer could also lend a hand by capturing the outcome of the investigation in a riveting format, along with a website developer, if needed. Journalists and news organisations could help make the newfound information accessible to a wider audience. Activists, academics and researchers can aid an investigation with anything from the background research, verification and fact-checking phase to the publication and awareness-raising phases.

Collaborations can take place across various levels. There could be one between a local citizen and a researcher at an NGO working in the national capital. Then there are cross-border investigative teams working at regional and global levels. Local facilitators are especially helpful to an investigation, because they grant investigators access.

What are the benefits of collaboration?

The advantages of collaboration are infinite: finding better evidence, creating a stronger impact, exchanging information or knowledge, filling expertise or access gaps and, last but certainly not least, ensuring safety and security support for the members of the collaborating group. Gone are the days when investigating alone was the key to securing one’s exclusivity on uncovering wrongdoing or breaking the news. Even the most hardened investigative journalists admit now that “lone wolf” investigations are no longer a good idea (if they ever were). Networks of collaboration can make the uncovered information and its outreach much stronger.

People coming together to expose wrongdoing or speak truth to power aids investigations both in findings and presentation, better protects investigators, and creates more pressure on authorities and governments for accountability. For many people, it might be hard to know where to look for support, funding, and collaboration platforms. But identifying even one collaborator whose job involves investigations can connect you to other collaborators and the resources needed to carry out the project. To help with the process of investigations, the other portions of this Exposing the Invisible Kit detail best practices, tools and techniques.

Different people, different skills

It would take one person a lifetime or more to learn all the skills used in different kinds of investigations. In a collaboration, you can have several uniquely skilled people working toward the same goal simultaneously. Even if one person has more than one skill, which is exciting and useful for low-budget projects, it is always better if your project generates work and income for multiple people who have years of training and experience in the field.

Reaching a wider audience

Each person is a member of a community, whether it’s a social circle or professional network, and the people in those circles and networks have their own communities in turn. Having multiple people in a team means the findings can be distributed in a non-linear way to a greater number of people. The more people, the more potential avenues to get the word out. Some of these have large audiences, like a news organisation, an organisation with a huge number of newsletter subscribers, an individual using savvy audience engagement tools, or a person with a strong social media presence. A wider reach equals a stronger impact.

Circumventing travel restrictions

Collaboration has taken on a renewed significance in light of the many pandemic-induced travel restrictions. There are also perennial impediments like visa rules and budget limitations. Whether it’s your own country or elsewhere in the world, in lieu of travel, the most viable option is to connect with people already located there to get the job done.

Sharing the work

A large-scale investigation might seem attractive because of its potential to make a big splash with far-reaching revelations. But once you start peeling the layers and drowning in documents, it is common to be overwhelmed by confusion and anxiety as the initial excitement fades. A partner or team helps you stay sane and reminds you that you are not alone.

Ensuring accountability

If you have taken up a project voluntarily and it is not supported by any organisation or a committed group, it might be put on hold or you might give it up altogether. Having a collaborator means a sense of mutual accountability, which could lower the chances of the project getting shelved.

Securing workplace equality

Local investigators often work the hardest to investigate issues afflicting their community, yet they are not recognised enough. If an investigator is relying on a local person to facilitate the investigation, it is only fair that the resident should be treated as an equal collaborator in the story. If the collaborator is a journalist, recognition could come in the form of a joint by-line and shared payment. When it’s an associate who does not wish to be named or is helping with the logistics but is not directly engaged in the investigating, compensation for the time or expenses incurred might be sufficient. In the case of an activist, a citizen investigator or a group of active members of the community, you could connect them to resources that would help them carry forward their work.

Bringing authenticity

Some investigators are rightfully criticised for parachuting, a negative term used for an outsider who comes to a local area (sometimes working with a lot of untested assumptions), quickly conducts an investigation, and leaves immediately. In these instances, a possible misrepresentation of local realities, history and context could occur. If a such a story misinforms influential people like policymakers, the lives of entire communities would suffer the consequences of policies made on inaccurate bases. Partnering with someone who brings deep local knowledge helps avoid the exploitation of a local community or their misrepresentation.

Offering perspective

No matter how well informed, one person cannot bring a panoramic perspective to a story, especially in a limited time. When individuals from different backgrounds collaborate, they bring to the table questions and connections the person living there would not even think of, because you tend to take for granted a lot of facts about the situation you are embedded in. An outsider’s perspective makes you realise that some of those things need to be questioned or explained in the investigation so a greater number of people can comprehend the findings.

Enhancing safety

Attacks on whistleblowers have gone up tremendously even in what were previously considered “safe” places. But there’s safety in numbers - working in a group helps protect you and your work.

If a report is suppressed in one country, it can be amplified in other places.


Example:

  • Forbidden Stories is an example of a programme that aims to continue and publish the work of journalists facing attacks.
  • The Signals Network is an organisation that enables safe and ethical collaborations among media and whistleblowers to advance the public interest and to encourage transparency and accountability.

Just as a local person enjoys more trust in their community, an outsider may also be able to access people and places by virtue of the privileges they have as a foreigner. An investigator from the local community could at times be too “under the radar.” Also, foreigners who intend to leave after the investigation will be much safer from risks than someone who has to go on living there.

Bringing gender and cultural diversity

Team-mates of different genders help gain access to different places and people. A woman who has faced sexual violence might prefer to talk to a woman, while certain religious places might allow entry only to men. LGBTQI+ investigators and/or those sensitive to marginalised communities may gain access to their respective communities easier than others at times.

But not everything is just about getting access. A more diverse team helps respect the right of the interviewee to talk to someone who is closest to their lived experience, studied it enough, or received relevant training. This way your investigation can better understand the interviewees. They do not have to do the labour of sharing the entire background of their lived realities, which allows for deeper and more meaningful interviews. A mix of cultural identities in collaborators also brings unique points of view and learnings to the investigation.

Putting together the (dream)team

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When building a strong, well-balanced team, think of what your project needs and what to look for in colleagues to support it. List the skills, sources and resources you already have, as well as the ones needed for the investigation. Also think beyond the immediate team. You can engage subject matter experts for either part of the investigation or throughout. You can also reach out to a support network of friendly advisors who are not a part of the team but are willing to have an informal chat about their experiences.

We suggested a list of questions to ask yourself below, but make sure you tailor your own list to your specific environment and needs.

What to look for in a team

Complementary skill sets, fluency in local languages, and access:

  • What are the documents/places/people you don’t have access to and who is in a position to gain that access?
  • If you are going to a place where you do not speak the local language, or even if you would be conducting remote interviews of people whose language you do not speak, who can assist you as a reliable local investigator or a translator?
  • If a community is known for being closed-in and not interacting with outsiders, is there a local activist or other civil society members working with the community for years who could be an ally that helps you gain entry and trust?

Subject expertise:

  • Is the investigation likely to get you into hostile situations? If yes, do you know someone who has hostile environment or de-escalation training and can share it with the team?
  • Are you expecting to receive a lot of sensitive information from your sources digitally? If yes, can you find someone who can ensure digital security for the investigation?
  • If your findings are going to be presented online, and especially if you have a lot of young people as your audience, can someone help design an interactive platform?
  • If the investigation is going to produce a lot of on-site, visually strong findings, could you connect with a filmmaker or a photographer?
  • If the case has a lot of legalese, or if those exposed are likely to file defamation cases, could you touch base with a lawyer working on similar issues?

Planning and organising the team

Make a plan:

Plan out your investigation and identify what roles you might want to fill for the execution of your investigation plan. Having a rough plan gives you a sense of activities you may undertake and the roles and skills of your those you want to work with. For a look at the most important elements of an investigation, check out the guide “What Makes an Investigation” elsewhere in the Exposing the Invisible Kit.

Reaching out to potential collaborators:

You might know investigators directly or know others who do. If any organisation has done work on the issue, you could contact them for collaboration, and they could also tell you about others they have worked with and might still be interested in pursuing the subject. When reading about the topic of your interest, you could get in touch with the authors to ask if they, or the sources they interviewed, would like to join your investigation.

Social media is also a good place to establish contact if you cannot find their contact details otherwise through online searches. People regularly use LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to connect with new people. You don’t have to be on all these platforms to make connections. For example, many people have their emails in their Twitter bios, which you can access without creating a Twitter account for yourself. If you don’t find the people you are looking for, you can contact any affiliate organisations or colleagues and request an introduction.

When possible, online or offline workshops, conferences and other investigation-related events are some of the best settings to meet potential collaborators, launch ideas or proposals for collaboration, and have introductory meetings that can kickstart new projects.

Collaboration platforms:

There are several specialised platforms to help connect journalists and other civil society investigators and sources looking to collaborate. These platforms often work for any investigation topics. Help A Reporter Out / HARO helps investigators find the right people to work with. Hostwriter and Global Investigative Journalism Network - GIJN are a couple of platforms where collaborations regularly take place. Hostwriter’s Unbias the News project invites collaborative and cross-border stories for publication. Project Facet also facilitates collaborations.

But even online social media groups and individual profiles related to investigations can be used to reach out to potential partners. Just go on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn and type out words like “investigation” or “investigative,” “OSINT - Open Source Intelligence.” On Facebook, for instance, by adding the “Groups” filter when searching for such key words you will find groups of investigators you can ask to join. These groups could be region- or subject-specific. Keep in mind that some are private groups and will often need to run a background check on your social media profile or ask around about you to verify that you are trustworthy.


Note:

Some investigative meet ups and conferences also end up making a social media page or a discussion forum on their website, like Dataharvest - the European Investigative Journalism Conference. ARENA - the organisation running Dataharvest - also hosts a discussion group and several topic-based networks that you can check and apply to join if relevant to your work.

You could also start a group of your own, add some relevant people you know, and in due course other investigators looking for team-mates might join.

Funding for collaboration:

Collaborations need funding, because, apart from expenses of the investigation’s logistics, all team members should be compensated fairly. Clean Energy Wire, Hostwriter, Journalismfund.eu, European Journalism Centre, n-ost, Pulitzer Center are all groups that encourage investigative collaborations with financial support. But if you read carefully many other grants also allow the possibility of having a two- or three-member team. Unless it is explicitly mentioned that only individuals can apply, feel free to write to the grant giving organisation and ask if you can apply as a team. In addition, check out the lists of Fundraising and Grants & Fellowships resources that GIJN provides on their website.

Inviting collaborators to join:

Many individuals secure a grant first and then ask around for collaborators. This way they let people know that they have a funded project in hand, not merely an idea in their head. With the confidence of funding, new team members feel more reassured about investing their time, granting the initiator a more diverse pool to choose from.

But this method has its flip side. Sending grant applications can be time consuming. It could be a lot for one person to take on, especially if it’s a large-scale project. If someone manages to win a grant, it could lead to an unsaid hierarchy in the team. The initiator or “leader” might feel that they have already put in more work than the next person and should have more say in the project. A new joiner might have some genuine concerns about the project but may not raise them because of the guilt that the “project lead” has done most of the work.

If there is a collaborator who can invest the time to join the initiator right from the beginning, it benefits everyone. For one, the proposal would be a realistic one. Let’s take the example of an international collaboration. A collaborator would not promise to bring information from their region which, as a resident of that country, they know would be impossible to get. The budgets drawn would be more specific to the economic situation in both the countries. The timeline would be drawn based on both persons’ schedules, rather than one person killing themselves to meet the deadline the other has already promised to the funders.

Choosing the right collaborator(s):

People signing up to join a project usually share their work experience, why they are interested in the idea, what they could bring to it, and how. But remember that CVs and bios tell you what a person has done, not who they are, which you need to know in order to work with them.


Tip:

Invest effort in knowing someone and trust your intuition

Apart from the email exchanges that establish preliminary contact, interest and information, try to have video calls, or at least voice calls. Get to know each other; see if you share compatibility by discussing your work interests, ways and ethics of working, your motivations and expected outcome with respect to the investigation. Ask about the kind of collaborative work they have done in the past (it doesn’t have to be an investigation). Find out if they are a team player by discussing potential areas of conflict or describing a scenario and asking how they would deal with it. Don’t ignore your intuition because of certain facts, like the accomplishments listed on their CV. Having these chats prior to choosing a collaborator is crucial.

Agreeing on collaboration conditions and any compensation:

When employers see resumes, they hire people to do an assignment and pay them on delivery. Even if not always explicitly acknowledged, something of a power hierarchy still exists. The hired person gets paid only when they deliver. If they don’t, they stand to lose that pay, along with their own reputation in the eyes of the organisation.

In the case of collaborations supported by organisations, people sometimes get paid, at least in part, in the beginning. You could be in a kind of partnership where the person you are choosing is not an employee, but an equal partner. You don’t want to face a situation where money has already been disbursed, and you are having to chase members who have not delivered what they promised. If it is a case where you alone were the project initiator at the time of the grant’s approval and involved partners later, then as the “lead” you run the risk of losing the organisation’s trust for failing to deliver.

For these reasons, a jointly prepared agreement is a must. Some questions to consider when preparing an agreement include:

  • How and when should the team communicate to share updates and raise queries?
  • What deliverables are expected from each person and by when?
  • How frequently will each member share their findings? (This is especially important if a team member pulls out later for an unforeseeable reason to ensure the team has access to their work.)
  • What’s the backup plan in case the team cannot deliver something promised?
  • What is a reasonable amount of time within which people can be expected to respond to messages? If a person doesn’t respond after that time period, can the team move forward without them, and in some cases restrict access to shared data for non-communicative team members? (This isn’t necessarily anything against the non-communicative person. Rather, if they have been locked out of their systems, or, worse, are facing some kind of detainment, restricting their access would not only protect the data but also the investigator.) If they turn up later with an explanation for their silence, how would the team then proceed?
  • What is the final aim of the investigation? To share the findings with an affected community/to submit it to a tribunal/to get it published by the media?
  • What will happen to the data/evidence/documentation after the investigation is over?

Tip:

Develop a Shared Code of Conduct

In addition to crafting an agreement outlining collaboration details, work management and timeline, spend time as a team to develop your own code of conduct focused on mutual expectations on ethics, diversity and inclusion. As a start to any good collaboration, this code of conduct should be drafted collaboratively, and you could organise an online or physical (if possible) meeting dedicated to it alone. Consider brainstorming on and listing aspects such as: what is acceptable as behaviour and what is not; what happens if someone breaks the code; how to give constructive feedback; how to avoid or address tension, frustration and aggressive behaviour; how to respect each other’s privacy and safety – what is allowed and what isn’t in this respect, etc. If you collaborate in a larger team, you could even assign one or two team members to assist any conflicts or tensions that arise.

Getting the paperwork in order:

If an organisation is sponsoring the investigation, it might require each team member to sign a contract with them. If lieu of a third-party contract, the initiator should draw up something in writing to ensure the delivery of certain tasks within a timeframe for a specified fee.

Before you and the team hit the road


Safety First!

Ensuring the safety of collaborators and trying to foresee challenges is a vital part of your investigation. Use the ‘Do No Harm’ principle so that no participants in the investigation whether sources or collaborators are negatively impacted by it.

https://cdn.ttc.io/i/fit/800/0/sm/0/plain/kit.exposingtheinvisible.org/collaboration/holistic-security.png Screenshot from Tactical Tech’s Holistic Security manual: https://holistic-security.tacticaltech.org/

This involves understanding the work environment, choosing the right tools and platforms for communication and conducting risk assessment. For more on issues to consider when safeguarding your team, sources and investigation see the section: Contingency Planning.

Risk is inherited:

If you and your collaborators carry little to no risk (e.g., living and working in a safe area), but you are interviewing a person experiencing high risk (e.g., living in a dangerous area or working on controversial issues), you inherit that risk. Your risk level will be higher for a period of time before and after the interview. If you interview someone for a report or an article that will be published, be prepared for your risk to increase at the time of publication. When investigating individuals in positions of power and influence, be prepared for a prolonged, higher risk if they become aware of your investigation.

On the other hand, much like how you inherit other people’s risks, they inherit yours. Operating in a low-risk area or having a low-risk profile does not mean you pose no risk to others. On the contrary - you may increase the risk of others you interact with. This can happen when your usual behaviour in a low-risk area may very well put you at risk in other areas. Simple acts such as communicating on a mobile phone may be safe to someone in a low-risk area, but that same act can easily subject someone to danger in a high-risk area.

These considerations need extra care when working across regions or issues, where team members may be based in varied contexts and operate under particular risks or threats. The entire team should become aware of everyone’s possible vulnerabilities and work to set out a safety assessment and mitigation plan that can address those risks. Remember that a team is always as safe as its highest risk member.

  • Read our Safety First! article in this Kit for basic safety considerations when investigating.
  • Consult Tactical Tech’s Holistic Security Manual for a detailed approach that integrates self-care, well-being, digital security, and information security into traditional security management practices of collaborative projects and organisations. The manual was initially designed with human rights defenders in mind as a target audience but it is equally relevant for investigators and anyone working collaboratively to expose issues affecting their communities.

Briefing the team

An often-overlooked step is explaining the project to new team members. Project initiators have an intimate knowledge of the investigation, but not everyone starts with that level of understanding. First, you have to get everyone on the same page. Otherwise, you would end up launching into the execution plans for the project when some collaborators still have questions related to the project’s initiation.

After sharing the proposal approved by the funders and the supporting documentation with new members, tell them about the back stories not necessarily included in the application. Tell them how you came upon the idea, why the story is important to you personally, and any other aspect of the project that can help others create their own connection to the work you’re about to do. This goes for the budget too - explain why you chose what sum for each category of expenses, and what your calculations were based on. If there is a stipend included, was it a fixed amount allotted by the granters, or did you also budget for it? If the latter, what was the time investment you had in mind? If the time needed seems more than the investigators’ fee, is it because there was an external cap on it by the funders? Or is it because you felt it was important to divert part of that fund to some expenses? If the latter, is there a plan where they can be paid better later after the findings have been shared publicly? If the working grant is not split equally, what was the rationale behind that? Does it indicate a disproportionate division of labour too?

The reason people often collaborate is because the project is too big for one person to take on. In the case of larger projects, team members might have to say no to other assignments. For such a long-term involvement, it would be naive not to consider the financial well-being of all the collaborators during that period, especially freelancers.

Defining roles

A well-defined division of labour is paramount to collaboration. Figuring out who oversees what right at the outset avoids confusion and misunderstandings later. Once the tasks are assigned, it is also easier for individuals to plan their schedule according to how much time each of their tasks will take them. Decide if there should be a project coordinator everyone is comfortable with, someone who solicits updates and sends reminders when needed. Some projects have a person solely dedicated to managing the team and making sure they stay on schedule.

Logistics

When there is no organisational structure to fall back on, one or more team members will have to take on the role of logistician. This may sound like a basic task, but there are investigators who dont want any part of making these arrangements, which could be anything from making schedules to doing currency exchanges for the team. In such situations, teams have to figure out how the work can be divided equally.

Credits and acknowledgement

How should each person be credited? For example, should the report list names in alphabetical order or should it be on the basis of whoever wrote the most? People often skip these things because they are embarrassed to come across as petty or self-important. But wanting to be appropriately acknowledged for your work is a genuine concern. If questions remain unanswered in people’s minds or if unarticulated grudges linger, they strain relationships and, by extension, the project. If an initiator talks about these things themselves, they are avoiding putting people in a position where the joiners debate whether it is right to raise these points. The initiator then also establishes their good intent and transparency.

Ethics and methodology

Sit together and agree on common ethics and methods of working. It’s important to approach this conversation with an open mind, because different people could have different opinions. It is best to have some common understanding at the start, rather than having to deal with it in the middle of the investigation. For example, there are investigators who are completely against sting operations or pushing their sources to reveal information, while others consider these methods fair play when the result could lead to exposing a wrongdoing.


Note:

The ethics question extends to decisions about software tools and platforms you may choose to use. While open source tools may sometimes present limitations to the investigation task at hand, oftentimes they can also present an alternative to commercial tools that may not fully respect the privacy of your data. For examples on navigating the choices of platforms and the trade-offs, please refer to Tactical Tech’s article Technology is Stupid: How to choose Tech for Remote Working.

Schedule

Some people like to sleep early and some late. Sometimes our schedules are decided by sources or the limited time during which an on-the-ground investigation site might be open. But when that is not so, like in any organisation, stick to the working hours you have drawn so that people can switch off, rest, talk to their families or go for a walk. Theres no such thing as round-the-clock working with perfect productivity.

Check with your partners about their non-negotiables. Beyond what time do they not work? What do they feel about dealing with an unexpected development in the investigation if it happens on a weekend or a holiday?

Health requirements

If the team has to visit a site that involves a long trek, do all members feel up to it physically? If not, can those who stay behind help the team with working on some other aspect of the story? Do some colleagues need to stick to strict mealtimes as a health requirement? If yes, and if the team is working on an erratic schedule due to factors beyond their control, maybe such colleagues could carry some dry food items with them. The teammates who are vegan or vegetarian might also find it useful to do the same, in case they do not always find their preferred options in all places or times.

Budgeting

Many grants are flexible about how much money is spent for a specific purpose as long as it is spent on the investigation. This leaves many financial decisions to the team. Someone could want to spend more on accommodation, while another team member may want to spend more on hiring services like filming. It is important to agree beforehand on a more detailed breakdown of expenses, even though the funders might have approved a less detailed budget.

Funders pass budgets with caveats around what their support would or would not cover. Still, during the investigation unexpected categories of expenditure might emerge. If possible, and if you do not need to urgently make the expense, it is good to quickly check with the sponsors if these kinds of costs would be reimbursed. It might not be a bad idea to request to be connected to the accounts team of the funding organisation as well. Many accounts department have extremely specific rules about the items that would be covered, how the billing should be done, etc. Sometimes both the recipients of the support and the points of contact at the supporting organisation are not fully aware of these minutiae. It is better to have this clarity before spending the money.


Note:

What reality teaches us

Each investigation brings to light some new realities funders and their financial departments might not have encountered before. Regularly sharing these realities with them could lead to newer rules that support the unpredictability of investigations. For example, the accounts section of an organisation once insisted on a printed taxi bill, while the driver in the rural area who had taken the investigator around was not literate and so was unable to provide it.

Before investigators and funders sign memoranda of understanding, the former could bring to the table such concerns or lessons learned from past experiences. Money often tends to create an invisible hierarchy between the giver and the recipient. So the team might feel hesitant about raising a bunch of queries. But to ask, discuss and then agree in advance is much more feasible than to ask for terms of contracts to be changed in hindsight. Funders who regularly support investigations understand some unpredictable situations that might arise in investigations and do try to be flexible. But for that to happen it is important that the team keeps an active and honest line of communication open with them.

Letters of intent

One thing that reassures monetary supporters about the investigation’s findings becoming publicly known are letters of intent. These are letters issued by media houses to team members saying they would like to publish the outcome of the investigation. Many investigators drop the idea of applying for funds because they feel hesitant to ask for these letters, do not hear back from publications or find it awkward to ask someone for it a second time after their first grant proposal failed. To get around this, you should remember that:

  • You are not really asking anyone for a guarantee. In fact, many publishers, when they mention their interest in publishing, also add a clause saying “subject to editorial standards”, or something to that effect. Letters of intent usually do not function as a binding legal agreement.
  • You are also not in a legal agreement with the publication to publish with them. If at some point you realise your story is better suited for another house, you could inform the initial publication of this, thanking them for their support.
  • Publications often have limited travel budgets. If you pitch an investigative story to a newspaper/website that can only pay the writing or the photography fee, they would actually be happy to break the story at a cost much lower than what they would otherwise need to pay to facilitate such an investigation.
  • You do not need to secure letters from the biggest news organisations. If you think some smaller groups have been more responsive in the past, you could request them as well. The funders would also be looking at your past work or the preliminary research your application shows to know about your credibility. Therefore, your chances of getting the grant do not depend entirely on statements from other organisations.
  • If there is an editor who would be happy to provide the letter but might be too busy to send it in time, ask if they would prefer a basic template to look over and sign. The template could just have a couple of sentences saying the publication is interested in the investigation and would like to publish the findings if all editorial requirements are met.

Post-production

What happens after you’ve collected the information and put together the story/report? Will one or all team members decide on the platforms (as in organisations, websites, events, etc.) for putting the investigation findings out in the public domain, should that be your goal?

For instance, if you plan on reaching out to NGOs and/or media organisations to publish your findings, there should be a shared understanding on this based on the reputation, distribution capacity, response and publication time, fees and other factors that such a publishing platform may bring to the table. If you plan on creating and managing your own publishing space(s) online or offline, this will need to be agreed and planned all throughout the investigation process, not left for the last minute as getting stories out for dissemination and awareness it’s a whole project in itself and requires some particular skill-sets to do it effectively.

Contingency plans

What to do when a team member goes AWOL, has to pull out mid-project, or does not turn in the work expected from their part of the collaboration? What contingency plans can you fall back on? One way to minimise these kinds of losses is for the project coordinator and maybe another team member to periodically keep collecting updated work, notes, data sets, even expense receipts, etc., from the investigators at regular intervals.


Safety First! - contingency planning

Contingency planning is meant to provide you with a back-up plan in case your initial plan fails or is affected in any way. Contingency planning should be part of your overall safety planning and of the safety procedures that you should embark on early on in your planning activities.

It is easy to get lost in logistics like booking tickets and hotels. But before diving into that, pause and do a safety assessment of the place you are visiting. No assessment is one-size-fits-all. A place can be completely safe for one team member yet fraught with risks for others, depending on their identity (gender, religion, language, etc.) and relationship with the place.

It is also important for each member of the team to do an honest self-assessment of risks they could face, and not feel the pressure to be “brave” and dismiss all considerations. If there is hesitation around this, it is good to remember that threats faced by one person could impact the entire team and investigation, so it is best not to downplay any risks.

Some questions to consider are:

  • What are the possible risks at each location the team plans to visit for their investigation?
  • Are low-risk members willing to take the lead during travel, for example by asking questions, while the high-risk ones keep a low profile?
  • Should the team split up if some aspects of the work can be done without involving the high-risk members at all?
  • Is there someone in the advisory group that has worked in the area before and can help the team with tips?
  • What is the team’s safety protocol? Have the members discussed an exit plan (in case of a stampede/physical aggression/a team member having an accident, etc.)? Is it safer to move with a fixed vehicle and a driver, or to keep changing? If the visit is to a crowded place with no parking spot nearby, will it be quicker to leave by readily available transport, if any? Is there a local person/organisation that can be named/called in case of emergencies? Has everyone saved numbers for the emergency services, embassies and their hotels? Are there people (personal/professional) “back home” who have all these numbers (and flight/train/bus details of the team) and have been asked to use them to ferret out information about the team’s whereabouts if they have not heard from the members for a certain amount of time (decided in advance)? Are people aware of the local traffic rules if they are driving or for when they would be walking around as pedestrians? What is the security question and answer (an innocuous question asked over phone or text like “how’s the weather there” with an “ok” meaning all’s going fine and “it’s warm” meaning the situation is not safe, and so on)?
  • What should be the guiding factor while choosing a place to stay? Will a place situated in the city be safer because of the crowd around and access to help if needed? Or will a place on the outskirts suit the team’s needs better if the idea is to be more inconspicuous? If there’s a team of four with two high risk and two low risk members, do they need to stay separately per their safety assessment and stay in touch virtually, and also to limit surveillance if one place is more “on the radar” than another? What are the cultural considerations to be taken into account? Will it be better for people of the same gender to stay in a place of lodging? Or will mixed groups looking similar to families/friends/office teams draw less scrutiny?
  • What is the safety assessment of the local people helping the team and the interviewees, and how can you prioritise their safety?
  • If the team is going to take photographs, is it safe to use a camera or to leave it in the hotel, opting instead for phone cameras?
  • How will the material be stored and backed up safely every day?
  • When the team faces questions about who they are and what they are doing, what is the common answer the team has decided on? Are there risks arising out of the team members’ individual or collective work publicly available online? How has the team prepared to deal with related questions and suspicions?
  • Does everyone have health insurance and their policy details? Is health information (allergies, blood groups, pre-existing medical condition, etc.) in a shared document that can be referred to by medical professionals if any health-related emergencies arise?
  • Does any place require any personal protection equipment?
  • Are there any legal issues involved with visiting a place or carrying data out of a place? Does the team have a legal advisor on board who could help with such assessments specific to that region?
  • Which identity cards would the team members be carrying?
  • If the travel is to another country, has the team gone through the Foreign Office Travel Advice for the place?
  • Has the team considered risks other than ones directly related to the investigation, like petty theft leading to loss of cash, documents, etc., and prepared accordingly (carrying limited amounts of cash, deciding whether it would be safer to carry a document on leaving it at the hotel, etc.)?
  • In the event of extreme stress/traumatic events, can the team support each other? Are they connected to mental health professionals they can call during such times? (When covering trauma related stories, you should discuss with your funders if there is budget for mental health services if needed.)

If this list is any indication, there are a lot of questions to consider when travelling in a team. But these questions are all necessary to keep you and your collaborators safe and effective when conducting your investigation. Once you have templates ready for one investigation, you can keep using the same for others, modifying them as you gain experience in collaborative investigations (and hopefully sharing those suggestions with us so we can add to this guide!).

Travelling

Not all projects come with a budget that allows for team members to travel and investigate together. But if there is money to cover the cost of travel and accommodation, there is an immense amount of merit in doing it.

Meeting your team face-to-face is irreplaceable. There is nothing like it for team building. It offers support to the other investigators and, at times, reduces the safety risk a member might take on in investigating alone. When interviewees see there is a team, or that people from more than one place are involved in investigating, and that it would be published in multiple places, they sometimes respond better and take out more time because they feel what they have to say will reach more people.

At the same time, the presence of a “foreigner” could raise suspicions for some. So, consult the resident investigator on whether there is any interview or site visit to which the other team members should avoid going, and where these other members should wait in the meantime keeping a low profile, letting the local investigator take the lead in questioning.


Tip:

For further reading on how to prepare and act when going to a foreign or possibly hostile location, check the Interviews guide and the Field guide in this Kit.

Crossing borders

Borders can be tricky in-transit places where you do not have the comfort zone of your usual location and are yet to receive the support of your team in the foreign location. You are on your own. Be patient, calm and cooperative at all times. There could be various checkpoints to go through, and you could be questioned either for a routine stop or an informal chat. Sometimes language barriers can lead to miscommunication. But if your body language remains relaxed, and you maintain a sincere intent to understand and cooperate, you run a lower risk of giving the impression of the “suspicious foreigner”.

If you are going as a media person, be prepared to answer what you will be reporting on. Again, discuss with the local contact and the team beforehand. Without going into the details, you can give a broad answer. Some countries need you to take a media permit/accreditation once you land within a few days of arrival. Don’t forget to do it because you have got wrapped up in the investigation, or it can be a problem when you return. Some of this information is not clearly available online and while your local collaborator may find out, if it is the first time for them, even they miss out on some details of the process. If this is pointed out to you at any point while entering or exiting the country, accept the mistake and be willing to pay the fine (from the contingency fund that should be available in your budget). It is not unusual that on seeing a cooperative passenger who has made an honest mistake, the fine also gets waived off if it is up to the discretion of the officials.

You might be taken through several doors, left to wait in several rooms and interviewed by a series of officials. It helps to have the confidence of a person who has followed the entire travel and visa procedure correctly, checked all the boxes, has all the papers, and has been patient and truthful. Then that one error would appear like what it is, an aberration, rather than a pattern. That’s why when you are going through visa rules and are not sure about whether some document is needed or not, it is better to have that extra piece of paper rather than not. For example, if the visa is given on arrival and the fee can be paid either at the time or online, it could be a safer bet to already pay online.

Since we are talking especially in the context of collaboration here, it is important to note that an individual working on their own might have their own way of going about things. For instance, they may not understand why media accreditation is needed in the destination country if they already have a press card from their home country. An individual might want to argue the point. But it is hard to build a strong argument without knowing the local laws perfectly well. And if a heated debate leads to the officials calling up your partner in the country and bringing them unwanted attention, it might not be a great thing for the investigation and for the local team member who has to go on living there after the team leaves. In a team, taking decisions in isolation could imperil everyone.

Accommodation

Figuring out where to stay during the investigation should be done in discussion with the person who knows the place locally. A tourist may only look at the cost of a room and the facilities provided. But investigators need to decide if they should stay within the city to have better access to interviewees and places, or whether they would like to stay on the outskirts to avoid standing out too much and being noticed by too many people. If the plan includes a lot of sitting together in the hotel and researching/writing/thrashing out ideas, check if the hotel has a power back up and a quiet conference room.

Balancing your personal needs with the team’s collective priorities

It is best to carry things like toiletries, instead of assuming the hotel or even nearby shops will have it. These items do not take up a lot of space or weight, and it is ideal that when the team arrives, they are all ready to plunge into the work soon in the limited time rather than having to hunt for the shampoo or cereal they cannot do without. If you do leave behind something and cannot quickly and quietly find it during team breaks or resting periods, try to do without it, unless it is something crucial like medicines. Do not keep exclaiming about how you are amazed that a “basic” item is not available and stress out the resident team member who is trying hard to make you feel at home. They are not your holiday planner or your tour guide. They are already dealing with extra work because of ending up as the default “host” due to their local knowledge. Unless an on-site investigation is going to take place in each team member’s location, you may not have a chance to return the favour. Adapt, adapt, adapt.

Exit plan

Despite all your safety precautions, sometimes you could find yourself in an unexpected and unsafe scenario. An exit plan is a method you outline beforehand that helps you get out of these situations and return to safety. No investigation is worth your life. Of course, ideally you would like to protect both your investigation and your well-being. But your exit plan should also consider a case where the former might not be possible. Your plan should include a strategy that prioritises the lives and safety of your team above all else. If you can get out of a threatening situation by giving up the evidence you have collected at the site, you should do it.

Before you go for a site visit, have an agreed upon exit plan at the ready. Again, the resident investigator can advise on this (it could be an activist, a journalist, a guide or a local authority taking you to a place). They may also have the upper hand when it comes to being familiar with the local language. Once agreed on the exit plan, each member can repeat it to the team, so it’s confirmed that everyone has understood the same thing. A tense, urgent situation does not give you the luxury to go into a corner and whisper an exit strategy into existence then and there. If the situation is slightly different from what you had prepared for, wait a few moments for the local member to improvise. If it seems they are stuck, any team member can lead with something closest to the plan devised. That’s why it’s crucial to spend enough time together before embarking on the investigation so team trust can develop.

In theatre, there is an exercise called the “trust fall” where the group holds hands standing in a circle and one person starts leaning back, taking the group with them. People’s bodies are stressed, and they fear the fall. But they go with the flow trusting that the group will tune with each other’s bodies so well, and the people to their left and right will hold on to them so tight, that they would only lean back to the point where they do not fall. That is the ideal level of trust to be cultivated amongst a team of collaborators.

On the “job”

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Regular communication

This cannot be emphasised enough. Keep each other updated even if there has not been any major development on the work front. It’s always better to share updates yourself. Nobody likes to be the bad cop who keeps asking for status reports or sending reminders.

Talk regularly. If some decisions are taken in meetings, put them down in writing and share the document with the minutes. Documents shared online can be updated anytime but when you are setting up time to talk, be mindful of time zones. Signal and Wire are examples of safer applications investigators use to communicate, compared to something like WhatsApp or regular phone calls. Also try to use safer email services like riseup.net or ProtonMail.

Timeline

A big project could take months, even years, to complete. The enthusiasm at the beginning of a project begins to wane over time. Other individual projects can start demanding team members’ attention. If things get stagnant, try to reignite the sense of community by finding ways to connect with each other. Keep reading up on the subject you are investigating and sharing links and notes with others.

Interviews

If you are asking team members to interview a source either alone or with you, make sure you brief them properly. Let them know what gets the source talking and what trigger points to avoid. This way you will get the maximum amount of information, and you won’t lose your trust with your source. In some cases, it could be useful for your partner to ask some questions you don’t want to ask because of your old relationship with the source, questions that might not be welcome from you but might be allowed for if asked by a new or a foreign investigator.

If one person is going to ask questions that are likely to make the interviewee threatened or aggressive, then try to hold such interviews in public places like cafes with another partner nearby and at a safe distance. For more on interviews and sources, see Interviews: the Human Element of Your Investigation and How to Manage Your Sources.

Sharing resources and information about the project

As the project develops, there will be updates to share, source details to add to, and new questions to look into. Decide on digitally safe, easy-to-navigate platforms where you can share these items. (And don’t keep information to yourself! Collaborations are not competitions.) Choose the apps on which there is consensus. If someone is new to a platform, do some handholding until they get used to it.

And remember, sharing isn’t just limited to the project at hand! The most successful and long-lasting collaborations are based on camaraderie and solidarity. When not working, talk to each other about your other projects and interests. If you have ideas, contacts or information about resources that would help advance each other’s career, share generously.

Social media sharing

A lot of investigators keep sharing mini-reveals or “teasers” on social media during the course of an investigation. If you are someone who does that, discuss it with the team first. Is everyone comfortable with these snippets of ongoing work getting out? Is it even safe for the people involved? Will it create impediments for the remainder of the investigation? A common and seemingly innocuous trend is travellers sharing pictures of their boarding passes online. In investigations, this could mean alerting the wrong people to your trip, and the details and bar code on the pass could easily facilitate identity theft.

If you intend to take and share photographs not directly related to the investigation but that show the team members, consult everyone first. They may not want their pictures on social media for personal reasons. Plus, a seemingly innocuous photograph can also raise questions such as, “why is this group of people hanging out together at all?”

There is also the question of the security of sources and interviewees if you share their visuals. Or if you share their statements before the investigation is over, you might be putting them at risk.

Documenting methodology

A group of investigators, each with a unique set of skills, coming together is not an everyday occurrence. The methodology of your investigation will probably make for as exciting a read as the investigation itself. It also wins the audience’s credibility. Allot time in your schedule to document this periodically.

Check-ins

Our personal and professional lives are constantly overlapping, what with working from home and social media platforms that have our vacation photographs alongside the link to the latest sample of our professional work. You might be out working, but your mobile phone could still receive a slightly worrying text from home. Instead of pretending that people’s lives exist in watertight compartments, allow for a safe space and time regularly for check-ins.

It is not about fulfilling a formality or asking people to share something personal they do not want to. A genuine concern for the team’s well-being can mean simply asking after them, being open to listening, offering whatever support you can and sharing notes about self-care practices. Knowing each other’s lives and struggles helps to engender empathy. It can help foster a sense of loyalty, belonging and commitment within the team.

Acknowledging people’s work and contributions

In team work sometimes individual contributions and efforts get lost. Take a moment to appreciate, congratulate and celebrate people when they make contributions that take the team one step closer to a successful investigation. Being specific with your compliments is a good way of letting the recipient know you are sincere. Thank the colleague who always checked in with everyone about how they were doing, name the person who managed to keep all the collected information organised in one place, and so on.

Being sensitive to cultural diversity

Be respectful to the various backgrounds, races, age groups, genders, nationalities, religions, languages, histories, and sexualities your team members have. Try to educate yourself a bit about their cultures before you start working with them. And remember, it is not their job to explain things to you or teach you these basics.

This is valid for your relationship with team members and also for anyone else you might be collaborating with or counting on during your project. It is important to always be aware of your and your team’s position with respect to other groups you are working with. If you consider travel to and interaction with communities, for instance, you as a guest visitor might enjoy more or less freedoms than the host. More freedoms might create more space for your actions as investigator(s) but might endanger and expose your hosts, and vice versa – nobody is neutral or invisible. Risk is inherited.

Collaboration follow-up

Publishing the results of a collaborative investigation is a cause for celebration for the whole team. But it can also feel anti-climactic at times. Not all investigations enter the public domain with a bang. Some excellent deep dives take a while before people go through and process it all. Impact could take months or could happen in indirect ways that the team might not immediately see. Don’t let your team spirit and satisfaction of a job well done get overshadowed by these factors. There’s nothing wrong with a slow burn.

After well-deserved celebrations and much-needed rest, you can take the collaboration a step further by listing for yourselves places and people you would specifically like to share the findings with. The internet is replete with new information and investigations every day so not all of your target audience groups might have seen it. Also, think of innovative approaches to take it to people: a presentation in your community, a performance with a local arts or political theatre, a publication that might want to translate and distribute the results in another language, the possibilities are endless.

When sharing publicly, credit and acknowledge all who contributed to the work, whether as active investigators or otherwise (except the ones who have requested anonymity). Share your findings with those as well who could give constructive feedback, starting with all your advisors and supporters.

Please make sure that everyone is paid on time. It is not only frustrating for a team member to keep sending reminders for the pay they have earned but also disrespectful towards them. Late payments can adversely affect a person’s financial situation too. Many choose not to work again with those who keep delaying payments.

Pulling off a successful collaborative investigation is no small feat, but the rewards match the challenges. The relationship between team members who come together to resist crises of all sizes is something that could last for a lifetime. With this tried and tested trust and comfort level, you could think about follow-up investigations or launch new ones. The follow up work also helps in building the impact over time, so save all your notes and transcriptions safely and carefully. An efficient team with a successful investigation behind them is also more likely to get funded in future.

It might seem easy and uncomplicated to work alone. But in today’s fast polarising society collaborative investigations cultivate connections, make us empathise with the problems of different regions and groups of people, and propel us to look for similarities in each other rather than differences. Out of our shared problems we find common solutions.


Acknowledgements:

This guide would not have been be possible without meetings, collaborations, support and feedback from many peers in the field of research and investigation. Many people have contributed their experience, knowledge and kindness. Thank you to: Manuel Beltran, Xavier Coadic, Wael Eskandar, Felix Farachala Valle, Coco Gubbels, Alison Killing, Tyler McBrien, Beatriz Quesadas, Laura Ranca, Nuria Teson, Marek Tuszynski.


Published on 15 June

Resources

Note: many of the resources below address journalists but most tips and advice can be equally relevant to investigators who are not journalists.

Tips on how to collaborate

Newsroom collaborations

Case studies

Analysis

Organisations supporting collaborative investigations