How to Write up Research

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The two most important considerations when writing up your research are that you convey the facts in the most engaging way and that you avoid being subject to legal action. In the majority of cases, it will be useful to have a chronology of the events under investigation – when x met with y, decisions were taken, public relations campaigns began, scientific studies published, company accounts filed etc. This does not mean that you have to relay the story chronologically, but a clear grasp of the timeline will help you to move around in time within the retelling. Many of the most common software packages have the facility to plot a timeline once you have the data, with Excel being a useful vehicle for recording dates and plotting them over time. Just like any good story-teller, you will need to try and engage your reader. This is best done by considering the same criteria as screen writers would, which includes characterisation – outlining people’s motivations, psychological state and obstacles – and setting the scene. You may wish to begin with a hypothesis and examine various causes and effects. Human interest is always a good building block for a story, with the drier details quickly summarised so as to avoid losing your reader. A good story will lead to some kind of struggle, climax, resolution or conclusion. All facts reported must be verifiable but you can recount them in a rich, multi-layered way.

This brings us onto our next point – avoiding legal action. In order to do this, you will need to be meticulous in your research process. Keep copies of every document you rely upon in your argument, take notes from every meeting or conversation you engage in, even if it is ‘off the record’, and double-check everything when you come to write up. This is especially the case where your story exposes a major political or corporate scandal in which fierce libel lawyers might be involved. If everything you have written is true and verifiable, you will largely be protected from legal action. Charges of defamation, slander (for transitory statements) and libel (for written, broadcast or otherwise published words) generally rely on published statements being untrue. Take extra care with juxtaposition, using words like ‘meanwhile’ and ‘separately’ to distinguish different actions and protagonists; also use ‘allegedly’ freely.

Reynolds defence

If you publish an allegation that is untrue, you may under certain circumstances invoke the Reynolds privilege. Under this privilege, publication of material can be successfully defended if the following clauses are met:

  1. the media was under a duty to publish the material in question;
  2. the people to whom the material was published had a legitimate interest in reading it; and
  3. the media behaved responsibly.

In the case of Reynolds v Times Newspapers Ltd (1999), the Court set out ten guiding principles, now known as the ‘Reynolds factors’, which would be considered in deciding whether a publication had behaved responsibly. The ten factors are:

  1. The seriousness of the allegation.
  2. Whether it was on a matter of public concern.
  3. The source of the allegation.
  4. The steps taken to verify the information.
  5. The status of the information.
  6. The urgency of the matter.
  7. Whether comment had been sought from the claimant.
  8. Whether the gist of the claimant’s side of the story had been published.
  9. The tone of the article.
  10. The circumstances of the publication.[1]

Injunctions to prevent publication

If an individual or organisation receives advance warning that you are about to publish something which reflects them in a negative light, they may try to take out an injunction to prevent publication. In 2010, the use of super-injunctions came to light, whereby newspapers are not only prevented from publishing but they are also prevented from mentioning that they have been prevented from publishing. In a landmark case, in which a super-injunction had been taken out to prevent The Guardian from publishing the details of the oil trader, Trafigura, dumping toxic waste on the Ivory Coast, Paul Farrelly, MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, used parliamentary privilege to bypass the injunction. Inscribed in the Bill of Rights of 1689, this is the unqualified right of an MP to speak freely in the House of Commons without fear of interference by any court in the land. In this way, Farrelly was able to broach the subject of Trafigura, having announced his intention in advance on Twitter, which brought the story firmly into the public domain, allowing The Guardian to publish its research.[2]

While the case outlined above illustrates the difficulty of bringing certain stories to light, it hopefully also illustrates the importance of doing so. In today’s world, there are thousands of similar stories of corruption, so allow your conscience to guide you and unleash the results of your research.

The first part of this section is based on a presentation by Luuk Sengers

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