Solving Crimes: How to Think Like a Detective

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The “Journalists as Detectives” panel: (from left) Sanne Terlingen, Anna Babinets, Cecil Rosner, and Kunda Dixit. Picture: Daylin Paul

When Kahsay Mekonnen, a refugee from Eritrea, was found dead, hanging from a tree in Germany, the case was labelled a suicide. Mekonnen’s belt was found still hanging from the tree a year later, an image investigative journalist Sanne Terlingen says “is very symbolic of the investigation”.

Anna Babinets’s colleague and fellow journalist, Pavel Sheremet, was murdered by a car-bomb in Kyiv, Ukraine in 2016. Not trusting the local police she teamed up with three of her colleagues to uncover the crime.

Terlingen, who reports for OneWorld and Argos (a Dutch investigative radio program) and Babinets, a Ukrainian reporter and co-founder of the investigative journalism agency Slidstvo.Info, joined Cecil Rosner, a managing editor of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation who oversaw an award-winning investigation into deaths of indigenous women across Canada. The three spoke on a panel at the 2017 Global Investigative Journalism Conference, moderated by Kunda Dixit, a founder of the Centre for Investigative Journalism Nepal and Nepali Times.

Here are some of their pro tips:

1. Reinvestigate Cases Closed Early

Always question the narrative and find the patterns. Look into cases that have not been adequately investigated or have been closed too soon. “If you study the indigenous population [in Canada] you come across a surprising fact”, says Rosner. “They are over-represented in our jails. We must look for foul play and identify the cases that have been dismissed.” Mekonnen’s case is an example of an investigation dropped too soon. Terlingen quotes the police: “He’s a refugee, they are always depressed.”

2. Small Stories Are Not Always Small

“A single case can tell a lot about international crime,” says Terlingen, whose small investigation is part of a much bigger on. Terlingen and her colleague, Huub Jaspers, uncovered that Mekonnen was being threatened by a human smuggler and potential organ trafficker who is wanted by Italian police.

3. Avoid Publishing Too Early

Be careful when it comes to publishing. If you publish too early you could be accused of interfering with police investigations. “We didn’t want to be blamed by police for not being able to solve the case,” says Babinets.

4. Use Facebook

“Facebook forensics, this is the new tool”, says Dixit. Through Facebook Terlingen was able to link Mekonnen’s relationships and family members. She even established that Mekonnen had been in contact with the smuggler by looking at who had added Mekonnen to Facebook groups.

5. Consider When to Involve Police

Hold on tight to your journalistic values. “It’s an important principle to remain independent,”  says Rosner.  “Unless someone is in immediate danger … then there is a reason to inform.”

6. Respond Quickly

To find the clues it is important to respond as quickly as possible. Babinets’s investigation found their key suspects through CCTV footage. “Most organizations save video for about 5 days”, so they knew they had to respond quickly.

Find out more about these investigations through the Mekonnen case website or by watching the full film of Killing Pavel.


Zita Campbell graduated from Otago University, New Zealand, in 2015 with a double major in theatre, film, and media, completing the last year of her bachelor’s degree at the University of California Santa Cruz. She has worked as a freelancer in London and plans to specialize in long-form and documentaries on humanitarian and environmental issues.

Daylin Paul is an independent photographer, visual journalist and photojournalism educator based in Johannesburg. He is the 2017 winner of the Ernest Cole Award for Photography for his documentary Broken Land and the 2017 Hostwriter Pitch Prize for Collaborative Journalism. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and Financial Times.

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