How to use the ‘4 stages of curiosity’ as a framework for investigations

While researching my post on developing curiosity in journalism I came across Terry Heick‘s 4 stages of curiosity. It outlines 4 steps that learners go through as they grapple with new knowledge: firstly finding out what they are expected to do (the process); then understanding the content involved; then how to transfer that to particular situations; and finally how it applies to, and changes, them.

But the same model can also be adapted to provide a framework for investigations. Here’s how:

1. Process: how does a system work?

Many — if not most — investigations relate to some sort of system. Mapping that system (or a process within it) and understanding how it works is a useful first step in either scoping out the sources in an investigation.

In a 2012 investigation into Olympic torchbearers, for example, I needed to understand how torch relay spots were allocated, and the system that had been created around that, from the panels that judged nomination stories to the policing of the relay and the money being exchanged in sponsorship deals. In other stories you or your team might start by trying to understand the prison system, libraries, or university mental health support.

A system can also be used to generate ideas for investigations in the first place.

My post on using empathy as an investigative tool outlines one way to do this. Mapping a system helps you to identify potential problems in that system; the rules that are supposed to be followed or enforced; and the gaps in knowledge that might turn out to be ‘cracks’ that people fall through.

When probems are identified another approach that can be useful is the “5 Whys Approach“. Developed by the Japanese industrialist Sakichi Toyoda, it simply involves starting with a problem (such as “Homelessness is rising”) and asking “Why?” five times.

This helps push past superficial answers (“people can’t afford to rent or buy a place to live”) to those that help identify facets of a system that can be investigated (“Why? Because there is not enough housing” “Why? Because incentives to build homes are not working” And so on.)

Systems thinking more broadly provides a “mechanism for seeing a system as a set of forces, connections, and evolutionary properties that make up the whole”. Journalism+Design provide a systems thinking toolkit for journalists here.

2. Content: what has been written and said about the issue?

Once you start mapping a system, you will need to identify what content exists around the issue you are interested in.

That will include previous articles on the issue: news reports, interviews, profiles, backgrounders (Nexis, available through university libraries, can be useful for this).

It will also include content from within the system: reports from regulators and charities, for example; and information published by private companies (company reports, brochures, etc) and industry groups.

Individuals in the sector will be publishing content, too: can you follow them on social media? Read their blogs, listen to them speaking in podcasts and watch them speaking at conferences? Have they shared slides online?

In the Olympic torch relay investigation that content ranged from press releases by the organisers and documents published by organisations like Sport England, to the nomination stories of torchbearers themselves, scraped from an official website, and social media updates from observers. Press reports were monitored using Google Alerts and changes to webpages were monitored using Change Detection (now Visualping).

Freedom of Information can be used to source additional content: an official policy or procedure; correspondence; data; an internal report.

And you can create content yourself: write an explainer; interview someone; create a profile of a particular company or individual; curate a newsletter.

3. Transfer: generating story ideas

Now the magic happens. In order to turn this mapping and background reading into a story, you need to make the step up to using that content in a way that tells us something new.

This can be done in a number of ways.

One is to transfer historical information into a topical context: for example, has someone followed through on promises that were made in the past? Have past problems been solved — or are they getting worse? What happened next with new initiatives?

Another is to transfer knowledge geographically: for example, if there is a problem in one place you can investigate whether it exists in another place.

A third approach is transfer from the specific to the general: in other words, where you have come across reports of individual instances of a problem, can you investigate the scale of that problem — how widespread it is?

A fourth approach is to look at what’s happening in one part of the system, and its impact elsewhere: in other words, thinking about knock-on effects, or unintended consequences.

Or you can work backwards: investigating causes of a problem. “Following the money,” for example.

Each of those transfers transforms existing knowledge into something potentially new — and therefore, potentially, newsworthy.

4. Self: why should I care? What is the human impact? Why does this matter?

In the final step of the original ‘4 stages of curiosity’ the focus normally turns to the learner themselves. In journalism this is a good opportunity to ask “Why should I care about this story?” Understanding why you should care about a story will help you to explain to your audience — or an editor — why they should care.

The 5 Whys Approach can be adapted for this stage, too, by rephrasing the initial question as “Why should I care about X?”

The story about prisoners being unable to receive visits is a good example: Why should I care that prisoners have been unable to receive visits? Does contact with family reduce the risk of reoffending? Does it have an impact on their children? Does it indicate that prisons are not following guidelines consistently, or that more guidance is needed? That ministers have not even considered this aspect of lockdown?

Why should I care about any of those things? (Answers could include the cost of those knock-on effects, or a contribution to a growing problem, or indications of incompetence or blind spots that could have other negative impacts).

We shouldn’t expect to have the answers to that question immediately — instead, it can help guide our reporting and the questions that we ask. We might ask a charity, or an expert, or a politician, or someone directly involved: “Why does this matter? What is the impact? Why should a reader care? How might it affect them directly?”

Asking those questions can also help us identify potential case studies. We can then ask the questions that Heick identifies (“How does this apply to them? How is this changing them?”) of that person directly — using empathy to imagine potential answers in order to identify where they might go, and therefore be found.

(Journalism+Design’s guide to systems thinking for journalists offers another approach that can be used for this stage: outlining your motivations for covering an issue as part of the process of creating a guiding vision for your reporting).

Heick argues that this final level of curiosity is the most powerful because of “how it can change the student’s reasons for learning, and their own role in the learning process.” From a journalistic point of view, similar things can happen: it can change the angle of the story (for example, shifting focus from the prisoner to prisoners’ children), and the direction of enquiries (from prisons to reoffending, for example). In the end it can be the difference between cliche and insight.

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