How I got into investigative journalism

Investigative reporter and News Associates alumna Vicky Gayle shares how she got into investigative journalism.

Holding power to account, uncovering secrets, and telling stories that make a difference… these might be just some of the reasons why you want to be a journalist.

Investigative journalists have some of the most exciting jobs in the industry and are the subjects of countless TV dramas, films, and documentaries.

But what is it really like to be an investigative journalist? And what does it take to become one?

We spoke with Vicky Gayle, health inequality reporter for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, about how she got into investigative journalism and her advice for people wanting to break into the industry.

VICKY’S ROUTE INTO INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM

What made you want to become an investigative journalist?

My intention has always been to write articles that mean something and for my journalism to be useful and impactful.

Investigations are typically long-form and require intense focus, which suits my personality and writing style, and lets me produce work that matters to readers.

What was your path to a journalism career?

I began writing in my teens and contributed to different local publications in Birmingham.

A youth magazine asked me to be an editor, so I managed a team of writers and edited their work from my dorm room during my first year at university.

I did the usual – university paper, starting blogs, doing unpaid work placements – and was constantly writing.

After university, I took a few years out and worked at a secondary school before enrolling on the News Associates postgraduate NCTJ course in Manchester.

After completing my NCTJ, I landed a trainee job at the Daily Gazette in Colchester.

Read how to make the most of student media here.

What does an average day look like in your current role?

My day as a health and inequality reporter at the Bureau Local will vary depending on what stage of a project we’re at, but there’s always a lot to juggle.

If we’re at the beginning ‘scoping’ stage, I’m reading a lot, contacting people for interviews, and establishing my subject knowledge.

Our latest project will be published next week, so I’m fact-checking, providing evidence, giving feedback on illustrations, and answering questions from different colleagues.          

What is your favourite investigative story you’ve written?

A data-led investigation into systemic barriers for deaf people trying to access mainstream mental health support is one of my favourite published stories.

Even when others didn’t agree, I pushed to do the story because I knew how important it was, so I’m proud of myself for believing in my own editorial judgement.

Deaf people’s health still doesn’t get enough attention.

Are there any journalists who inspire you?

I don’t idolise any journalists. There are a lot of people doing great work and I see and respect that, particularly the older journos whose wisdom I’ve always valued.

I have a lot of admiration for anyone challenging the status-quo in journalism, who have launched their own platforms or are working on documentaries.

GETTING INTO INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM

What are your three top tips for carrying out an investigation?

  1. Question everything. Even when you think you’ve established the answer, double check, and purposely look for what you might have missed.
  2. Develop a thicker skin. It’s hard when your work is being scrutinised to not take it personally, but in my experience, my colleagues are doing what our readers will eventually do – picking holes. Remember that and embrace the feedback.
  3. Don’t skip steps. Investigations are like dissertations and each step is important to the next. Be clear on what you’re doing and what the story is, as it becomes more complex later on.

What are the biggest mistakes aspiring journalists make?

Not using their location to their advantage enough. News is everywhere so make use of your connections and local communities.

That gives you a lot of scope to create interesting pitches for local and national outlets, and there are many specialist and independent titles to build your portfolio and write about niche topics.

Should you specialise early or try to be an all-rounder?

There is no right or wrong answer to whether a person should specialise or not. However, if you know you’re passionate about health or criminal justice, for example, it will absolutely work in your favour to build up subject knowledge and contacts in that field.

Eventually, those contacts will lead to tip-offs and all journalists want those.

I came into investigations via data journalism. You build up the skills and techniques the more ambitious your stories become – as you should in any newsroom.

What qualifications do you need?

You don’t need a degree for journalism full stop, but I will always encourage an NCTJ qualification, including shorthand.

Relying on audio recordings isn’t ideal and you can’t do regional or local news reporting properly without shorthand.            

What are your biggest takeaways from doing an NCTJ course?

Shorthand becomes fun and once you’ve mastered it, you’ll be proud of yourself.

When doing the course, you should write for local publications like Mancunian Matters and take it seriously. You’ll use those same skills when you start working in the industry and the articles will be included in your portfolio.

I knew having an NCTJ would get me a junior reporter job and that job led to where I am now.

Whether you want to go into investigative journalism, entertainment writing, sports reporting or political correspondence, we cover it all at News Associates!

Find out more about our NCTJ Multimedia Journalism diploma courses here.