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Writing an effective investigation report

Graphic: Nepal NHRI leadership team publicise a report


  1. The investigation report should aim to educate and persuade.
  2. The report should include an introduction, background and findings and recommendations
  3. The report should clearly explain how the conclusions have been reached.
  4. Keep the report as short and as clear as possible and avoid any hint of bias.

The report of the investigation prepared by the NHRI, generally seeks to do two things:

  • Educate and inform decision makers and the public by shining a spotlight on a human rights violation; the report explains what has happened or what is happening.
  • Persuade the reader that the NHRI's findings are sound and its recommendations are valid and should be implemented. This is where the NHRI becomes an advocate, based on the facts and the law.

BASIC PRINCIPLES OF REPORT WRITING

Decision makers and the public are inundated with reports and information. It is important then that the NHRI is able to present a clear and compelling report.

Some tips to achieve this outcome include:

  • Think strategically, including by writing in a way that appeals to your intended audience.
  • Create a framework before you start to write the report.
  • Write as you go. Add content to the framework as the investigation progresses.
  • Leave the analysis and recommendations until the end.

WRITING AS QUALITY CONTROL

Writing a report is an excellent way of identifying what information has been missed in the fact-finding phase of the investigation. There will usually be something missing, even for the very best investigator. It might be questions that a witness was not asked or a document that was overlooked. Any gaps and shortcomings will quickly become apparent as an investigator begins to write the report.


Graphic: An NHRI investigator writes a report at a computer


HOW TO STRUCTURE THE NARRATIVE

No two investigative reports are exactly the same. However, if the goal is to describe what happened during a specific incident, then the structure used for writing the report is usually reasonably straightforward.

This structure has a beginning, middle and an end. It is simple, effective and flexible.

  • Introduction: Explains what is being investigated and why.
  • How the evidence was gathered: Demonstrates that the investigation was thorough, professional and fact-based.
  • Background: Provides a brief overall context for the investigation and explains why the NHRI launched the investigation
  • What happened before the incident? Gives a brief account of any relevant events leading up to the incident
  • What happened during the incident? Provides a chronological account of what happened during the incident, which is supported by witness statements and/or physical, digital or other sources of evidence.
  • What happened after the incident? Describes what happened to all parties immediately after the incident. This section should include the details and results of any forensic processing and results.
  • Findings and recommendations: The report should focus on the actual facts of the investigation until the final section on findings and recommendations. Avoid opinion and adjectives.

HOW TO STRUCTURE YOUR ANALYSIS

It can be quite a challenge to organise the evidence and develop a clear rationale for reaching findings and proposing recommendations, particularly in complex, multifaceted cases where there are a number of competing interests.

Issue: What is the issue that is the subject of the report?

Rules: What are the rules that apply to the issue?

The investigators should set out any human rights laws and standards that are relevant to what is being investigated.

Analysis: How do the rules apply, based on the facts?

The investigator sets out the relevant facts and then applies the rule/s to them. As this is done, the investigator will be able to develop an answer to the issue, based on the rule.

Conclusion: What is the conclusion to respond to the issues raised in the investigation?


Graphic: An investigation scene at night


WRITING A REPORT OF AN INVESTIGATION INTO A SYSTEMIC ISSUE

Writing a report of an investigation into a systemic issue can be more complex. The investigator will likely have to juggle multiple issues, some of which overlap. Any number of separate events may have to be explained and analysed.

One approach is to organise the report by themes, each of which may include a number of interrelated issues.

TIPS FOR GOOD WRITING

Good writing is about communicating clearly with your audience. Here are some general tips for writing an effective report.

  • Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
  • Use "active" language where possible; for example, "The investigator writes the report" is better than "The report is written by the investigator".
  • Use headings, sub-headings and text boxes to break up the text.
  • Have someone else read the draft report, especially someone who is not familiar with the investigation, to ensure the information is clear and the analysis and recommendations make sense.
  • Edit well to ensure accuracy and clarity.


Image credits

  1. Nepal NHRI leadership team publicise a report - National Human Rights Commission of Nepal
  2. An NHRI investigator writes a report at a computer - Office of the Ombudsman of Samoa/NHRI
  3. An investigation scene at night - Flickr CC