EDITORIAL: Powerful storytelling

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.

[pullquote]As journalists we fall into the trap of taking our information, throwing it onto a pretty visual and calling that journalism[/pullquote]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.”

Drugs for kids: “How to sell a disease”

Luc Hermann gave a seminar on how corporates dodge tax during day two of power reporting. Photo: Ray Mahlaka.

Luc Hermann speaks about the marketing strategies of Big Pharma in selling drugs to children.  Photo: Ray Mahlaka.

French journalist, Luc Hermann has made a career out of deconstructing “spin”.

Hermann, (@LucHermann) talked yesterday about how big pharmaceutical companies sell their drugs” at Power Reporting: The African Investigative Journalism Conference.

Hermann’s 90-minute CNN documentary: How to sell a disease investigates the multinational drug company, Pfizer, and how they managed to get doctors and reporters across the world to help them sell anti-depressant drugs to children.

Suicidal effects

His investigation started by looking into the case of a teenage boy in the US who committed suicide two days after taking the drug, Zoloft. Zoloft, which is an equivalent to the adult anti-depressant popularly known as Prozac, which is predominantly prescribed for the treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

In launching the drug, Pfizer released statistics which showed that up to 200 000 children in France could possibly suffer from undiagnosed OCD. The statistics had the effect of causing alarm among parents and doctors who worried that they may have overlooked the signs of the disorder.

Hermann says, “In the press, Zoloft can be prescribed to kids as early as six years old.”

Playing with statistics 

Pfizer’s statistics showed that one to two per cent of children are affected by OCD. Hermann says the disease makes basic functioning incredibly difficult for the sufferer. Children with OCD have difficulties to focus, have problems with anxiety and have obsessions with routines.

It makes it hard for them to learn and can make life very frustrating. These statistics allowed Pfizer to draw the conclusion that one child in every class in France could be affected by OCD.

The forced insider

The family of the boy who took his life after taking Zoloft took Pfizer to court. Their lawyer made contact with Dr David Healy, whom Hermann calls the “forced insider” in his documentary.

Healy was the key reviewer of data that found that Pfizer had noticed instances of suicidal tendencies by patients who took their anti-depressant drugs.

“If a child is diagnosed with OCD they will be hospitalised and treated under strict circumstances and then, yes, doctors will prescribe Zoloft or Prozac in order for kids to deal with their condition.

These decisions though are beyond the scope of the role of the general practitioner and if a prescription is issued at this point the patient should be carefully monited.

“Doctors will say that you have to monitor the patient for the first seven days of taking the drug, but no-one told the family of the boy this,” says Hermann.

Journalists get taken-in

Hermann’s investigations revealed that Pfizer targeted journalists and major media outlets who they invited to events and press related trips that were “quite appealing”.

The company fed information to reporters about the prevalence of the disease and the benefits of their drugs.

The Prime Time News (PTF1) channel in France aired a programme where they discussed how this disease affected children. “This programme was aired to about eight million people in France,” Hermann says.

None of the 25 journalists ever revealed that they were taken on an all expenses paid trip to Istanbul by Pfizer.

Hermann warns journalists that they should always be aware of how they are influenced and also of possible links between reporters and major companies.

Free-for-all drugs

Hermann ended his talk off by saying that six million children in the United States take these kinds of drugs, mostly Ritalin, for attention deficit disorder (ADD) and then Zoloft and Prozac. “What is most shocking is that some cases the schools have the power to prescribe these drugs, not only doctors.”

“These pharmaceutical companies have no idea how it affects children in the long run.” Hermann stresses that he wishes he did more to confront journalists who published articles endorsing the use of these drugs and who were effectively “spun” by Pfizers public relations team.

GALLERY: Luc Hermann explains how corporates dodge tax

Luc Hermann, a French journalist who specialises in deconstructing corporate “spin” gave a seminar on how corporate tax evasion via Luxembourg on day two of the ninth-annual Power Reporting conference.

Delegates made up of close to 300 journalists from around the world, listened Hermann speak about multinational flouting of tax laws and the use of loopholes in the law.