The Hidden Scenario: Interview with the Authors

Dan Hind is the author of two books: The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public, he spoke to Luuk Sengers and Mark Lee Hunter, authors of The Hidden Scenario about how their hypothesis theory came about.

Q1: The Hidden Scenario is, I think, unique in the way that provides a way of structuring investigative assignments and a technique for writing them up. How did you discover the connection between those two aspects in your own work?

Mark Lee Hunter: This was a long trip. I studied investigative methods for my doctoral thesis in 1990-1995, while I was also writing investigations. That put me on to the idea of using hypotheses. Then, while working on a book about a murder I was forced to develop better organising methods, which are actually the key to writing.

You create the structure before the text. It took me nearly ten years to figure out what I was doing, start to codify it, and test it on my students. Then I met Luuk through the Global Investigative Journalism Network and things started moving to another level. The scenario idea is Luuk’s, that why he’s the lead author. When he came up with it as a conference in Holland, I was blown away, I told him so, too.

Luuk Sengers: Actually it was Mark who opened my eyes about the creative power of hypotheses, which eventually led to the scenario idea. Scientists and detectives use hypotheses to narrow their research. We discovered that experienced reporters and students alike are able to predict the outcomes of their investigations with a high level of accuracy, just by combining the already known facts with personal knowledge and experience. Most people are able to ‘connect the dots’ if you help them to ask the right questions, creating scenarios for stories is the art of connecting dots. You ask yourself, ‘if this happened, what else must have happened?’

Q2: You've been teaching these methods for a while now. Are there investigations that have benefited from using them; that you are aware of?

MLH: Yes. We get testimonials all the time from reporters and NGO folks. Usually they say that we got them out of a jam, because they were drowning in facts. That’s a problem we specifically sought to solve so it’s nice to know the solution helps. We also get calls from young reporters asking how to start investigations. I can’t say how satisfying this is. We wanted to solve real problems. We’re doing it.

Q3: Investigative journalists tend to think that "the facts speak for themselves". Have you encountered resistance to the idea that facts need to be framed in a way that engages the reader or viewer?

MLH: Yes. I have seen it happen to other teachers who suggest that facts don’t speak for themselves. There are also traditions, like in Denmark, where if it isn’t grey, it isn’t serious. It’s been 40 years since Tom Wolfe shot that down. And Wolfe was right. You can abuse writing techniques, but you can also use them, so why would you not? What we say: facts to do not tell the story; the story tells the facts.

LS: Investigative reporters have more to gain from story-telling techniques than most in journalism, because they deal with a lot of dull and abstract material: stacks of data, complicated documents, interviews with experts… to turn this into a tentative story takes a lot. Story-telling can be a life-saver, too. An engaged public is probably more willing to speak-up for you when eventually the walls come tumbling down on you.

Q4: Which investigative reports from the last couple of years do you most admire, and why?

MH: Nick Davies’s work on Murdoch is one of the great stories of the last few years. There are two dozen others that I collected (with some help from Luuk and others) for an anthology called The Global Casebook, which is about to be published by UNESCO. We asked the authors to tell us how they researched and wrote their stories. I was relieved to see that most of them are doing what we advise people to do, even if they do not call it story-based inquiry. It confirms that we’re not just making things up. We are articulating processes that many reporters use unconsciously, so that they can be improved

You can now buy The Hidden Scenario on Amazon