Writing

Learn the 4 Principles of Investigative Journalism From “Watergate” Journalist Bob Woodward

Written by MasterClass

May 9, 2019 • 3 min read

Bob Woodward is one of the world’s most well-known investigative journalists. He broke the Watergate scandal in the 1970s together with fellow reporter Carl Bernstein, and has won two Pulitzer Prizes with his team at The Washington Post, the newspaper where he has worked since 1971.

Woodward believes anyone can be a journalist—they just need a little guidance. “The starting point in journalism is that there are no boundaries,” he says. “Everyone has their own version of the truth. But there are facts. There is reality. And as a reporter, you can come up with the best obtainable version of the truth.”

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5 Key Types of Journalism

There are five key types of reporting you’ll see in newspapers, magazines and online:

  1. News. News reporting is the most common style of journalism. It is a straightforward, accurate, impartial telling of the facts that usually follows what is known as the “inverted pyramid.” The inverted pyramid is a style of news writing where the most important information is in the headline and the first paragraph, followed by explanatory and background information further down. It means readers can see the most necessary information first.
  2. Opinion and columns. The counterpart to news writing is opinion writing. Instead of aiming for impartiality, opinion writing adds meaning to a topic by drawing on the expertise, perspective, and personality of a writer with knowledge on a particular topic.
  3. Reviews. Reviews analyze and assess art, pop culture, or entertainment. Reviewers combine facts and opinion in their writing.
  4. Features. Feature stories add depth to a topic by utilizing several sources. This is a longer format than news writing, opinion, or reviews. It is typically impartial, although some features contain firsthand perspective, and some publications prefer their features to focus on the writer’s voice.
  5. Investigative. Investigative journalism goes into great depth on a single topic, such as political corruption or corporate wrongdoing.

What Sets Investigative Journalism Apart from Other Reporting?

All journalism is about collecting, verifying, and assessing information, but investigative journalism takes this much further than day-to-day news reporting. Investigative journalism projects often take a reporter or a team of reporters several months or even years to complete.

Like news writing, investigative stories are fact-based and impartial. They are also long, like features. Another thing they have in common with features is that reporters can structure investigative stories however best serves the piece—they do not need to follow the inverted pyramid model.

Bob Woodward’s 4 Principles of Investigative Journalism

Below, Woodward shares his four principles of investigative journalism. Use these to guide you in the process of finding and reporting your own stories.

  1. Move outside your comfort zone. Good reporters aren’t afraid to cover a wide variety of subjects, and to do so requires hard work and a willingness to learn. Woodward says: “You need to get out of your comfort zone. You need to move into areas that you naturally do not understand, because the learning curve is fast when you do that, and you are in a position, as an outsider, to look at what’s going on differently.”
  2. Leave opinion out. Leave opinion out of stories. Always separate emotional issues from the facts. Failing to separate opinion from fact costs you credibility with the public.
  3. Avoid taking political sides. Journalists should avoid taking political sides. Woodward is careful to not show partiality to any one news network, giving interviews to news organizations on both ends of the political spectrum. He doesn’t vote in presidential elections in order to send the message that he is “in the middle of the road.” He is a reporter and citizen without a political agenda.
  4. “All good work is done in defiance of management.” Woodward firmly believes that at a newspaper, “all good work is done in defiance of management.” He maintains that this guiding principle does not permit the breaking of laws or rules, but instead encourages reporters to go their own way and carry out an investigation as they see fit. This is Woodward’s central tenet, and it’s behind the mentality of independence that has fueled his career. Do what you feel you must (within the law) to get the story, even if your manager might disapprove of your methods.

Learn more from Bob Woodward in his MasterClass on investigative journalism.