Humanising data is at the core of good investigative journalism.

By Maryam Adhikarie

With the advancement of technology in journalism, tools used for investigative journalism have immensely progressed. Cheryl W. Thompson, investigative correspondent for the National Public Radio (NPR) in Washington, credits Excel spreadsheets for helping her become more organised.

Thompson was speaking at the 15th African Investigative Journalism Conference (#AIJC19) on October 28. She said that being organised helped her land “hard” interviews. She added that this was where the story became human since it was the first point of human interaction. 

Despite the usefulness of tools, these human interactions between the journalist and survivors are crucial for a richer story. They force journalists to go to the scene, and resulted in Thompson compiling even richer stories. These included reporting on police brutality, where tazing of suspects which led to their deaths. 

Capturing these interactions well is crucial. Thompson mentioned taking footage by means of audio recordings, video or written notes of these interactions and emphasises keeping these safe. She recalled a mistake when notes of an important character in her story, a mother who had lost her child, were not saved on her computer.

While this may not always be possible, in this case, the emotion could be revived when the story was retold. Thompson explained that a mother who lost a child will always be smacked with that emotion whenever she speaks about such an event. 

Elaborating on the role of humanity in investigative journalism, Thompson also said that sources may be victimised in the process. This happened to one of her sources, who lost her job. “Protecting your sources with the consideration that they have lives and families is paramount,” she said. Thompson elaborated she did not utter a single thing about her unnamed sources if she had promised to keep their anonymity. 

While new tools and ways of working with data are strengthening investigative journalism, the strength and complexity of human interaction remains central. 

FEATURED IMAGE: Zimkhita Kweza, a documentary maker from Rhodes University, engages with the ethics surrounding protecting sources during the ABCs of Investigative Journalism session on the first day of  #AIJC19 at the Wits Science Stadium. Photo: Michelle May