The reporters behind French TV show Cash Investigation know a thing or two about producing investigative journalism for television: Over the past six years, their show has become a major player in France’s journalism landscape by tackling complex topics and making them understandable to a wide audience.
Since Cash Investigation was launched in 2012, its reporters have dug into everything from a French milk industry in crisis and tax avoidance by luxury brands to brutal management techniques at large French companies and the impact of pesticides on child development.
The two-hour-long program is very popular: It’s watched by an average of three million viewers every month, which represents 14% of France’s TV audience. Cash Investigation airs during prime time on the public channel France 2, the second-most-watched channel in France. The show owes part of its success to its presenter, Élise Lucet, one of France’s most famous journalists, who previously worked as a news anchor on public channels for more than two decades.
The program, produced by the production company Premières Lignes, is part of a new wave of French media projects that have taken investigative journalism to a wider audience. These include Mediacités, a network of local investigative outlets, and the independent investigative news site Mediapart, which has notably broken big stories like tax avoidance by former budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac or, more recently, questionable practices by President Emmanuel Macron’s former aide Alexandre Benalla.
“When we’re covering a complex topic, we never say: ‘Oh, the viewers won’t understand this,’” says Emmanuel Gagnier, Cash Investigation’s editor-in-chief. “On the contrary, we count on their intelligence and ask ourselves: ‘How can we best make the viewer understand this topic?’”
GIJN’s French Editor Marthe Rubio talked with Gagnier, who shared these tips on how to produce investigative reports for TV:
Vary types of narration
Often, using interviews with internal sources can help to explain a topic that is difficult to understand. And sometimes, it is vital to accompany these interviews with an animation. For example, for our investigation into the luxury industry, which we conducted in partnership with Mediapart and European Investigative Collaborations (the network that broke the Football Leaks) we had to explain the tax optimization strategy used by the fashion giant Kering. We explained this mechanism through interviews with internal sources — who wished to stay anonymous — who told us what was going on from the inside. We accompanied this with animations that illustrated how the mechanism worked. The journalist who carried out this investigation and her video editor got the idea of making the animation start at a seamstress’ table.
We mixed three types of narration: interviews with internal sources, animations and reporting in the field. Our aim was to demonstrate — taking our time, step by step — how Kering was able to avoid paying taxes in France and Italy.
Compare with objects from daily life
For our investigation into implants, which we conducted through a partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism as part of the Implant Files, we had to explain the workings of the notified bodies [who assess product conformity] and how the implants got into the European market.
“We try to avoid the dramatic tone often used in television. We regularly insert touches of humor and derision into our investigations.”
We realized that it would be easier to explain this through a comparison. So we started with an object that everybody knows, a bike helmet, and then we made an animation that showed that to get this object into the European market, it must have the European Conformity label, also known as the CE label. And that for implants, it is compulsory to go through notified bodies that give out this label. (Watch the animation in the video, at 15’21”.) This explanation was needed to make our viewers understand how an implant could get inside the market even with a very weak technical dossier.
Play with rhythms
The animation we made for the investigation about implants lasts one minute and 30 seconds in total. For TV, this is very long. It’s the length of an entire story in a news bulletin. Today, people are used to very short storytelling formats. This makes it more complicated to take your time, so it is important to play with rhythms by alternating short and long passages.
Let the viewers breathe
We try to avoid the dramatic tone often used in television. We regularly insert touches of humor and derision into our investigations. Some people hate it, but we defend it. The use of humor is a way to remove anxiety and to get a little bit of distance from our subject. The topics we cover are very heavy, and we have to give viewers moments in which to breathe. Laughter introduces a narrative break, which evacuates tension and revives viewers’ attention.
Take time selecting your topic
Sometimes, we work for two or three months on an investigation, and then we abandon it because we realize that the topic is not big enough for our program. We are very careful not to deploy all of our of our program’s resources for topics that aren’t really going to matter to people, because otherwise it’s as if we were crushing a bug with a bulldozer. What we investigate must legitimately outrage people and be up to the level of other topics we’ve deployed our means to investigate; otherwise it can turn against us.
Include the reporter, but carefully
Our Michael Moore-style sequences, in which Elise Lucet calls out CEOs or politicians to hold them accountable, are a trademark of our show. We think that showing the leaders’ refusal to answer our questions is important, because we cannot content ourselves with systematically getting answers from their PR services saying they cannot comment. If the companies we are investigating don’t give us answers, we go find them. We’re not looking for sensationalism; we just want real answers. We have questions to ask, which are the product of months of work. We are not here to suck up.
“We had about one million views on this excerpt, but people were forgetting the heart of our investigation.”
In 2015, for an investigation into the way France does business with totalitarian states, we confronted the former French justice minister Rachida Dati, and she used very violent words against Elise Lucet, calling her a “pauvre fille” (this French insult roughly translates to “stupid girl”). This part of the story became viral, and it totally eclipsed the investigation. We had about one million views on this excerpt, but people were forgetting the heart of our investigation and only the extract was being shared on social networks. Today, we are much more careful with how we communicate around these types of segments.
Protect your sources
We are in touch with different kinds of sources. Some accept to share their stories openly, but other prefer to stay anonymous. In this case, we use different techniques to protect them. Generally, we blur them and modify their voice. In some extreme cases, as in our investigation into the alleged funding of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s electoral campaign by Libya, we recreated an interview using an actor. We filmed him in semi-darkness so that his words were the most highlighted part.
Find the responsible party
We never decide that we cannot investigate a topic because it is too complex. However, it is important to be able to identify a responsible party. We have to choose topics in which there is someone who made decisions that led to this problematic situation. It is necessary to have an accountable person, and that this person is in a position to answer for their actions.
Correction: This article was originally attributed to the Global Editors' Network, but was corrected to reflect its original publication by the Global Investigative Journalism Network.
Marthe Rubió is GIJN’s French editor. She worked as a data journalist at the newspaper La Nación in Argentina and as a freelancer for various media such as Slate, El Mundo, Libération, Le Figaro and Mediapart. She also works as a data journalism trainer.