PEOPLE speak of being investigative journalists and as we learn and aspire to become some of the best journalists of our generation, we look at these journalists as representatives of the “cream of the crop” in the field. This may ring true, based on our biases and the invisible journalism hierarchy, but French journalist Luc Hermann said it is a tautology to refer to “investigative” journalism.
In his talk Spinning health: How big pharma sells drugs he said every story we write we need to investigate and interrogate, investigative journalism is not a special category where this happens exclusively. In everything we do we must remember our mandate, which is to tell stories accurately and to inform people.
When people think of data journalism the first inclination is to switch off because we all know that “three in one journalists cannot count”.
New York Times investigative reporter Ron Nixon reminded delegates in the data journalism seminars that it is not only about mathematics but about sharing information and helping people understand that information. As journalists we fall into the trap of taking our information, throwing it onto a pretty visual and calling that journalism. A delegate referred to this as “info-porn” and reminded us that we need to remember that even through data we must tell a story.
Data journalism will play a vital role in the 2014 national elections in South Africa. The general public will need accurate and intricate breakdowns of how the polls stand and what that means for the electorate. In the data journalism discussions this was an important topic which served us well as journalists who will be involved in the coverage.
In our “Your voice” section, we asked delegates what the most important skill they learnt was. For example, sitting in Heinrich Böhmke’s cross-examination for investigative journalists – he spoke of a tool he calls “inherent probability”. The basic principle of this is to question how believable your story is which will determine the amount of tangible proof you will need to have along with your story.
For example, if someone tells you they are late because they were stuck in traffic for 20 minutes you are more likely to believe that excuse from someone in Johannesburg than from someone in a small town like Springbok. The burden of proof on the person in Springbok is higher. In his opening speech Alex Kotlowitz said: “As a writer your best friend is chronology. If you have it, use it and if you don’t go out and find it.”
Empathetic rather than sympathetic
Kotlowitz said it was important for journalists to be empathetic rather than sympathetic. In South Africa we are fortunate to experience a broad media freedom. Although there are threats to this freedom we do not routinely experience death threats and corrupt editors as in some other countries.
Idris Akinbajo, a reporter from Nigeria who was central to investigations into oil corruption, spoke about his experiences. A sentiment that most of the Nigerian delegates shared was the negative consequence of exposing the evils of government and large corporations. As young journos we learned from industry’s greatest and how to think on our feet.
If there is one thing you need to help you write better stories it’s to connect with people and make great contacts.
The Power Reporting conference was the best place to network. Reporting requires one to be courageous and work hard to tell the best story possible. In the words of Kotlowitz: “Stories open apertures into dark corners of the world.”