Investigative and Non-Fiction Reporting

Report the world around you

What is it?

An investigative-reporting podcast is one that seems to work by way of inductive or deductive reasoning. That is, the author can accumulate and examine details piece-by-piece, ultimately creating a rich, focused picture. Or they can start with an overarching claim--a hypothesis--and see if specifics support or collapse it. Non-fiction podcasts can work in similar ways, though perhaps they come more from a place of documentary filmmaking or storytelling as opposed to forensics or journalism.



This American Life

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Where do I begin?

Come up with an idea and make a plan.

  • What is your subject of investigation? What story do you want to tell?
  • What closed questions do you have about it? (These are questions that have definitive answers.)
  • What open questions do you have about it? (These are questions that don’t have definitive answers.)
  • Where do you have to go to investigate it?
  • Who do you need to talk to?
  • What are the easiest elements to investigate?
  • What are the hardest elements?
  • What themes might be at play?
Session 2, Tier 1 Assignment Write your plan.

Do some research about your investigation or non-fiction story. Research the people involved. Who are they? What do they care about?

Come up with a list of places you need to go to and people you need to speak with.

Come up with questions for your interview subjects. In the biz, this is called your “Q Line.” You can share these questions with them before the recorded interview--or not.

Set times and places for site visits and interviews.

  • Is the interview in a place where you can control the sound? If so, prep.
  • Or is it in a place that you’re unfamiliar with? If so, more prep.
  • Is the interview on the phone? If so, Google Voice.

Meet your interview subjects and record your interviews. Before you record, make sure to confirm good sound levels. Don’t be afraid to throw out your Q Line if it’s not working or if you improvisationally come across better conversation. To be recording is to be getting your “Tape.”

Session 2, Tier 2 Assignment Write your plan and record some Tape.

Finished recording interviews, share a release form with your interview subjects and have them sign it.

When visiting sites, pay attention to any sounds that could contribute to your investigation or story. Take notes about ideas and impressions you have or details and specifics you notice. As they say in the world of journalism, “Get the name of the dog…”

Transcribe all your Tape. O Transcribe is a useful tool for this.

Review all your recordings and transcriptions, cut out the best parts, and organize them into “Tracks.” You also need to write your “Acts.” Your Acts are what you’ll use to set up or deal with your Tracks.

Session 2, Tier 3 Assignment Write your plan, record some Tape, and start working on your Tracks and Acts.

Record yourself reading your Acts.

Session 3, Tier 1 Assignment Have all of your Tape, including Acts and Tracks.

Determine if you need music and sound design.

Create, license, or find Creative Commons music and sounds.

Session 3, Tier 2 Assignment Your podcast is about 75% complete.

Put everything together with Audacity--your Acts, Tracks, music, and sounds.

Session 3, Tier 3 Assignment Your podcast draft is complete.

Share the draft of your podcast and get feedback. Share it with your interview subjects--or not.

End of workshop, Tier 1 Assignment You have a complete podcast episode.

Consider, reject, or incorporate feedback. Reflect on your process and the meaning of your podcast. Repeat previous steps.

In a spreadsheet, enter the metadata for all the files you created or used.

End of workshop, Tier 2 Assignment You have a complete podcast episode and metadata.

Finish your complete transcript. Your complete transcript is the one you will provide for you audience. It will be a combination of your Acts, Tracks, and descriptions of any of the music and sounds you used.

End of workshop, Tier 3 Assignment You have a complete podcast episode, metadata, and a complete transcript.

Decide, as a whole, whether or not your podcast should have a Creative Commons designation.

If you are going to put your podcasts online, do an audit of your online safety and security. Do you have safe passwords? Consider making passwords using the “diceware” method and using LastPass. If you Google yourself, what information do data brokers have about you? Consider contacting data brokers and requesting they remove your information.

But is this the only way to make an investigative-reporting / non-fiction podcast?

No! The steps above are a guide--not the rule. You might do things in a different order or not at all. For example, you might start with no questions for your interview subjects, and, instead, leave things to the moment and improvisation. You might reject a three-act or five-act storytelling structure for a design that’s from a different tradition. You could even try to make a podcast without any scripted parts and leave people and places to speak wholly for themselves.

Have you thought about...?
  • Accessibility: Did you include cues in your reporting for music or sounds? Think about users can't actively listen to your content. Can they identify these moments in another way (like a transcript)?
  • Preservation: Did you duplicate multiple tracks in case of failure? Think about copying your content to multiple locations as a failsafe.
  • Open: Did you include your audience in your investigation? Think about how productions can have an audience voice directly within the podcast.
  • Digital Identity, Safety & Privacy: Are there personal identifiers that may have been included in the recording that could be used by others to target you or your subjects? Think about how to catch these instances in the editing process.