Investigative journalism around the world

The Alfred Friendly Press Partners visited our class this week for an interesting discussion on investigative journalism in the U.S. and abroad. The class started with a presentation by Mark Horvit, the previous executive director of IRE, about the importance of investigative journalism and the impact it can have on society. He gave several great examples of investigative reporting from the past few years. He then transitioned the discussion to the obstacles investigative reporters in the U.S. face in doing their job as well as the potential dangers and barriers journalists in different countries face when doing investigative reporting.

The class was really interesting. Reporters from the Ukraine, Pakistan and India gave insight to the difficulties they face in doing their jobs. It was amazing to hear what sort of censorship, including self-censorship, journalists in countries around the world face. It was also interesting to compare the barriers to investigative reporters in other countries to the ones reporters in the U.S. face. It gave me a perspective about investigative reporting that I had not previously considered.

For one, I learned that I don’t need to be an investigative reporter to do investigative work and to stimulate positive changes to society through my work as a journalist. I also learned that I have no excuse for not doing that important work. The barriers that I would face can’t compare to barriers to investigative journalism in other parts of the world. The lecture reminded me of that and helped me realize that I can learn all the tools I would need to do investigative journalism in my career here at the MU J-School.

What I learned from Ann Friedman while she was at Mizzou

I got to meet Ann Friedman this week. It was great. For those of you who don’t know, Ann Friedman is a freelance journalist, podcast host, pie-chart maker and also sends out a great weekly newsletter. I was familiar with Friedman from her podcast, Call Your Girlfriend, that she co-hosts with her friend, Aminatou Sow. I’ve listened to the podcast for about a year now and was beyond excited when I heard that the Mizzou chapter of the Online News Association was bringing her to campus.

While here, she spoke in one of my classes and gave a talk about her journey from a staff editor to a freelance writer who has built her own brand, so to speak. Her podcast is great, but the focus is not journalism, so it was really wonderful to hear about her as a journalist, especially as one who has graduated from the school I am now attending. She offered advice about starting out in the industry, which is a prospect that I know gives me anxiety at least once a day.

Friedman’s perspective is realistic. The first step to her becoming a freelance writer was getting fired from her job as the editor of a magazine, and she was honest about that. She said that everything would turn out alright after we graduate, but we’re also going to get fired at some point. Our first job isn’t going to be glamorous and likely won’t be exactly what we wanted. We’re going to have to take on stories that we don’t find interesting in the beginning of our careers. But her message was that we can build on all of that.

One way to build on it, Friedman said, is through building our own brand. A collection of things or issues that editors come to associate with you and make it so they think of you when a story about a specific issue comes in. One of the important ways of doing that is to have a voice, to commentate on issues and to let your personality come through in side-projects.

That goes against everything the J-School has taught me so far.

Objectivity might be the holy grail of journalism. According to my teachers here at Mizzou, it’s definitely up there in the most important qualities of a journalist. And as a news reporting major who would like to work for newspapers, that’s especially important for me. So how does building my own brand fit into that? How do I have a voice and comment on issues when I’m supposed to be objective? There seems to be a very fine line of having a personality and being objective in journalism, and I’m definitely beginning to see how straddling that line will be difficult.

Fortunately, I had the (amazing) opportunity to introduce myself to Friedman after the Masterclass she held this morning for a small group of students, and she gave me some advice. I haven’t really broken into the field of journalism yet. I don’t yet have a vast network of connections within the journalism industry. I don’t know what prospective editors will be looking for when they consider whether or not to hire me. So until I have all those things and have established myself in my career, Friedman recommends that I hold off on building my own brand, to save my commentary for friends and family and be objective in public. Once I have a network and know what is expected of me, I can begin to comment on issues I believe in without risking my future career.

Sourcing

In class today we watched a movie about sourcing in stories. The movie raised several interesting points, one of them being the false balance some media affords issues such as climate change can mislead an audience. But what the movie focused on was knowing where your source is getting their information and who is paying for that information.

The movie uses flame retardants in furniture as an example. In the debate about whether or not flame retardants were harmful to the health of humans, scientists would argue and present evidence that proved all the reasons it wasn’t and all the side effects it can have on a person’s health. The side that was in favor of using flame retardants in furniture presented a doctor that told a story about a baby whose mother left a candle in his crib. His mattress was flame retardant but his pillow wasn’t, and the baby died after the candle fell over and his pillow caught fire.

But when journalists for the Chicago Tribune looked into this story, they found the doctor had told three different versions of it at three different hearings. When they questioned him, he said that the stories weren’t true but it was the principle that mattered. It turned out that he had been paid to testify by a company that was funded by manufacturers that relied on flame retardants in their products.

When you look at that story, the importance of knowing a source’s motivations becomes evident. You have to know their background and who is paying them to know whether or not what they are saying is true. And it’s important to know that what they’re saying is true, because even if they are a source that you quote in a story, you are attaching your name to that information. Whether or not someone says a fact doesn’t make it true and doesn’t mean it should be published.