At first glance, the size of the scroll bar is daunting. Being small, it suggests that you set aside some time before diving into “the first comprehensive journalistic reckoning” of the heavily promoted $1 billion the United States spent on education in Afghanistan. With the feature clocking in at just over 7,000 words, that suggestion shouldn’t be taken lightly. Full of statistics, government data, interviews, understandable explanations, and photographs, “Ghost Students, Ghost Teachers, Ghost Schools“ by Azmat Khan gives you the full bang for your buck.
It’s not the kind of story readers would expect to have a Buzzfeed URL.
The feature dives into the the US government’s declaration that they successfully established and renovated a substantial number of Afghanistan schools, a possible attempt to justify the US military’s nearly 13-year presence and 2,000-plus body count. While the topic sounds dense, and the investigation behind it difficult, the reporting is seamless. It begins with a scene from First Lieutenant Joe DeNenno—a member of the US army who helped build one of the schools—which reassures the reader that the story won’t be all politics and numbers. It sets the tone for the piece, promising a no-holds-barred investigative story, but not without some humanity.
When it gets down to business, Khan’s story is “based on visits to schools across [Afghanistan], internal U.S. and Afghan databases and documents, and more than 150 interviews.” Throughout the piece, these sources are linked where appropriate. At times, Khan even states how she contacted certain sources: for instance, she explicitly says that a warlord was contacted via cellphone in order to get a statement from him.
The New York Times’ Geeta Anand wrote a story about truant teachers in India. The story is well researched, and it’s obvious from the amount of dialogue that a great number of interviews were conducted. But nowhere in the story does the author explicitly say exactly how many interviews were needed, nor how much paper research was done.
Although Khan doesn’t say how long she took to collect her information, tour the schools, take photographs, interview sources, and actually sit down and write, the feature speaks for itself. Put simply: a ton of work went into it.
Although the Buzzfeed News investigative team is only three years old, they’ve “exposed injustice, corruption, and wrongdoing,” wrote Mark Schoofs, the team’s editor, in a January 2015 letter to his colleagues. “Millions of people have read your stories, and some of those people have been moved to act. An activist group is trying to get a battered woman out of jail. A top NSA surveillance official has been removed from her job,” he added, referencing reactions to two other investigative pieces the team has written. “When our Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith hired me in late 2013, he wanted us to build a team that would blend the best traditions of newspaper investigative reporting with the tools and philosophy of BuzzFeed, a media company of, by, and for the social web. The body of work you’ve produced shows that we hit hard and move quickly — we love scoops and will continue to prize them.”
In early 2016, Benjamin Mullen from Poynter did a three-part series about investigative teams at digital organizations. First in line was Buzzfeed’s “I-team,” which he described as being able to “[carve] out a niche in the vanguard of news organizations” since their founding two years ago. He also recognized the reactions to Buzzfeed’s investigative stories, writing: “It’s impossible to know whether BuzzFeed’s reporting was the sole factor in each of these cases. But it deserves a share of credit for bringing these issues to a wider audience.”
In reaction to Khan’s piece, Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey said he was “particularly disturbed” by the evidence found in the investigation. He then wrote a letter to Larry Sampler, former assistant to the administrator of the USAID’s Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs, asking for additional information.
Khan’s story is an example of the investigative feature at its best. It makes its point but leaves readers to decide whether they like the outcome the story presents. In this case, it seemed like an important reader didn’t, and as a journalist you know you’ve done something right when your story provokes that level of response.