What is investigative journalism? We asked a Walkley Award winner

We spoke to The Sydney Morning Herald journalist Nigel Gladstone on what it means to uncover major news stories as an investigative journalist in Australia. 

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If you’re considering a career in investigative journalism in Australia, you may be wondering what it’s like to work in a profession dedicated to unearthing major stories. Walkley Award-winning journalist Nigel Gladstone gave us a behind-the-scenes look at a career in this field of journalism, where uncovering the truth is a daily pursuit. 

What do you do as an investigative journalist?

Investigative journalism seeks to exhibit truth. Journalists delve into a topic to bring to light the story behind the story, reporting on important topics that appeal to public interest such as crime, corruption, human rights abuse, and social injustice. Working off a lead or hunch, journalists do a deep dive, conducting in-depth research, extensive interviews with sources, and sometimes-monotonous digging through public records and other documents to bring the story to the surface. 

The Sydney Morning Herald journalist Nigel Gladstone says unlike feature writing or breaking news reporting, investigative journalists spend weeks, sometimes months, piecing together a story. 

“You have a bit more time than the daily reporters, but it demands that you go deeper into issues and understand the topic more clearly before you write anything. You follow leads and look for sources and dig into corporate and court records looking for things to either add to, or start a story,” says Nigel. 

“I have a list of about 20 stories I'm working on, and sometimes a tip or lead will jump out, but mostly it's looking for threads you can pull together.” 

Do investigative journalists go undercover? 

One of the first things you learn when studying journalism at university is to always follow your moral compass and act ethically, for the stories you write and how you obtain the information within them. When it comes to going undercover for a story, Nigel says doing so is seen as unethical. 

“This is not something I have ever done and it goes against the general journalists’ code of ethics,” he says. 

While the thrill of going undercover is off the table, there are immense rewards in investigative journalism, and exposing wrongdoing is just one of them. For Nigel, the most satisfying part of the job is being the first to reveal a major story, “finding something no one else has [found] and exposing it”. 

“I found a massive leak of classified government documents that exposed the identities and methods of secret agents working to stop major drug importations to Australia.” 

On the flip side, writing an article that unveils a major coverup or exposes corruption can sometimes feel like the last ‘good’ story out there. 

The most challenging part [for Nigel] is “keeping the faith that there is another good story out there that you can find before anyone else and make it to the publishing stage without the legal team shooting it down,” he says. 

Famous investigative journalism stories

Considered one of the highest forms of journalism, some of world’s most well-known and respected journalists dedicated their careers to uncovering the truth and demanding culpability. 

Watergate is one of the most famous investigative journalism stories to-date, unveiled by revered investigative journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward in the early 1970s. The pair wrote numerous articles on the scandal, revealing coverups within the White House that eventually led to the resignation of US president Richard Nixon. 

More recently, an investigation by The New York Times and The New Yorker, reported on by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, exposed former Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein as a sexual predator after investigating multiple accusations of sexual misconduct. The now-infamous producer was subsequently found guilty in 2020 of rape and criminal sexual acts and sentenced to more than 20 years in prison.

How do you become an investigative journalist?

So how do you become an investigative journalist? If the idea of unravelling the truth through the written word sounds exciting, a degree in journalism or communication can help get you there. Many universities offer subjects dedicated to investigative reporting within the degree or as an elective, so you can study investigative journalism in-depth to hone your skills and find out exactly what’s involved in unearthing major stories. 

Nigel says investigative journalism is somewhat of a specialty field that typically sees journalists working at major news outlets such as the The Sydney Morning Herald or The Guardian.

“It's a niche area," he says. “You can freelance but mostly it's a job for mastheads as it can be expensive.” 

Like most forms of journalism, investigative journalists often start at the bottom and work their way up. Nigel began his career writing for local newspapers like the Manly Daily before joining the The Sydney Morning Herald as a data journalist. Eventually he found himself working investigations.

“They asked me to help with some investigations and it grew from there.”


Where will your career take you, if you follow your nose? Start by exploring a range of journalism subjects and degrees delivered by leading Australian universities, through Open Universities Australia. You never know, you could end up following a lead with Nigel. 


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What is investigative journalism? We asked a Walkley Award winner

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