Even though I have been working with podcasts for many years, my main job is as a reporter in an investigative editorial department. And somehow people think investigative journalism is a great adventure and something glamorous. This may be due to movies and series and is not bad (most of us probably even find it flattering), only: it has little to do with reality.
Podcasts have long deserved to be discussed, praised and criticized as seriously as other media. Every two weeks Marcus Engert and Sandro Schroeder take turns doing this for us.
Photo: S. Beetz
Marcus Engert has been telling people who didn’t ask for it since 2008 that the big podcast boom was coming. He was co-founder and editorial director of detektor.fm. He’s been making podcasts for a good ten years and thinks about the future of radio and audio on the web. As a reporter and author, he has u.a. He has worked for the BBC World Service, ARD and the dapd news agency and has lectured at various universities and journalism schools. Today he is a reporter for Buzz Feed News.
What the everyday life of investigative journalists actually looks like, we like to keep to ourselves. For example, because we spend large chunks of our time doing things that lead nowhere. And if we were to tell everyone about our topics, whistleblowers, working methods, tricks of the trade, we might as well leave the job alone.
The general public therefore usually only sees the results of our work – the research, texts, documentaries, reports and features – but not the way to get there. And even if there are good reasons for that, it’s a pity. Because, as in other disciplines, you can make the most of the things that not often learn the most. Talking about the way to a result and also about mistakes also builds trust. And with a lot of impressive research, after you’ve read, seen or heard it, you want to know anyway: How did they manage to?
Maeve McClenaghan’s podcast "The Tip Off" answers these questions. He profiles impressive investigative research from around the world – and its makers.
Maeve McClenaghan is a reporter herself, working at the UK’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an NGO that publishes its (sometimes breathtaking!) investigative research is made freely available online.
Often it’s a problem when experts talk to experts, not so here. Because Maeve knows what she’s talking about, which are the right, the smart questions, and because she gives her guests space, "The Tip Off" is more than just a retelling. Maeve’s slow, gentle, almost groping style of storytelling makes the podcast episodes stand on their own, even if you don’t know the research behind them at all.
No jewelry, no effect
From a purely technical point of view, "The Tip Off" is no big deal: a host who (re)tells a story, recorded interview segments from conversations with the creators – that’s it. Nothing is overloaded here, no jewelry and no effect plays itself into the foreground. The unagitated, gentle tone is often in stark contrast to the shocking, outrageous content one hears.
There is the double episode Nr. 15 and 16. In it, an investigative team from BuzzFeed News’ London bureau (disclosure: colleagues of mine) tells how they researched 14 deaths in London that were ruled by authorities as suicide, accidental or natural deaths. Among them, a man who had become rich as a problem solver for Putin’s fiercest critics and who, though very tall and strong, fell through a window half a meter wide into the depths, on the ledge of which there are still scratch marks presumably from fingernails. And an intelligence official who worked on the Russia issue whose rotting body was found in a gym bag in his bathtub and who authorities said his death was "likely an accident".
Yes, it sounds like an adventure. But the truth is that to do it, the team had to rent into drab, temporary, ugly offices outside the city, and a young reporter did nothing but scan documents for months – 250 boxes of documents.
Rare glimpses into all facets
We hear the case of a woman who was kidnapped and raped multiple times for six months and then treated in a special British clinic – until one day police officers came and took her out of the clinic because, as a non-British woman, she falls under immigration law.
We listen to Omar Radi (episode 47), who researched in Morocco how corrupt networks from politics and business enriched themselves with stolen land – and for this gradually felt the full force of the oppressive regime: Imprisonment, permanent surveillance, slander via the state media, hours of questioning by the security apparatus.
And we hear from Jim DeRogatis, who has stuck with research for more than two decades. When he released it, it caused an earthquake in the music industry, catapulted the MeToo movement to a new level, and gave the musician’s staggering number of victims R. Kelly regains some of her dignity: allegations of abuse of a magnitude that could not have been imagined.
In "The Tip Off" you get rare insights into all facets of this profession. Into working with big data and an infinite number of documents. Into the difficult field of suspect reporting, working with traumatized victims and cases where there are no witnesses. In research in the local and the global, in the rich West and in the poor, broken, war-torn parts of the world. The podcast is not limited to the American-European part of the world, not to white men, not to the rich and powerful.
Although "The Tip Off" doesn’t want you to, this podcast powerfully shows us what makes this job so lonely and so great. And what makes research so expensive – and so valuable. All the rented offices, cars and apartments, all the security, travel, translators, fact checkers, photographers, fixers on the ground.
And every now and then, "The Tip Off" also forces us to question our own beliefs. This is not done in a lecture style, but the big ethical questions of journalism are also dealt with here – and subjected to a reality check. When you hear the cruelest stories, can you really remain neutral?? If you can’t enter a war-torn country like Syria and do your own on-the-ground research, but hear about torture and murder in a government hospital there, should you ignore the story? If you want to hear material about underage abuse victims of R. Kelly receives: How will you then deal with the ironclad rule that editors do not give their material to investigative agencies?
Much of what you hear here makes you think. Other is inspiration. And incentive. The real value of this podcast, however, is something else entirely: "The Tip Off" pulls perspectives straight. Because the research and especially the impressive conversations with the makers make us realize how many privileges we are allowed to enjoy. And because these conversations are not infrequently also quite a good antidote to the Imposter Syndrome.
Great art doesn’t happen because someone talks about art all the time. Great kitchen not because someone keeps sharing food photos. And also here you realize: this job is work. Sure, there’s luck involved, but more important is: making mistakes, having instinct, doggedness, focus, solid craft, a good team, stoic persistence.
Almost 50 episodes have already been published. You hear them, and then you read: the researches, the reports, the books, and you wonder what happened to the people and how their story went on. "The Tip Off" gets you through lockdown and winter.
episode length: about half an hour
Official Claim: The stories behind some of the most compelling investigative journalism
Unofficial Claim: How did they do that?
If you like "The Tip Off", you will also listen to perhaps one or the other of the German research podcasts we’ve reviewed here