Towards more data-based, investigative journalism in India

Parents of a Nepali student who has scored poor marks get a fake adoption certificate from Indian authorities. Then the student gets into the medicine stream, as Indians don’t need to write the entrance examination. Then the student becomes a Nepali again. This scam, over the years, has led to substandard medical care in Nepal.

A village lost in floods; lack of seasonal floods in certain areas, altering crop patterns down the stream as farmers are dependent on flood water; lakes increasing in size. A trip to Everest Base Camp can bring about hitherto unheard stories of climate change, if one has the insight into climate change patterns.

These and many more amazing stories of quality journalism, shared at the ‘Uncovering Asia’ Investigative Journalism Conference were of great interest to me. Simply because, this is a challenging time for journalism, world over. The role of journalism is being perceived differently than what it really needs to be; what journalism needs to be is getting redefined these days, more than ever before.

When I got the opportunity to represent my organisation, Oorvani Foundation, at the Investigative Journalism Conference organised by Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) held at Kathmandu in September 2016, I was happy for two reasons:

1) This was an opportunity to connect with the world of investigative and data journalism from across Asia, and soak in the information and work that will be of use to us in future.

2) This was a chance to meet committed journalists who were working on the kind of journalism we believed in.

Insights, tips and tools

The three-day conference offered a lot of insights into what was going on in the world of investigative journalism.  The Panama Papers Asia team interacted with the attendees, giving a peek into the amount of work that went into unearthing stories related to offshore accounts of the powerful across the world. Investigating corruption and financial crimes have opened new arenas of work, with the availability of such data online.

Sessions on climate change data focused on identifying the right kind of data, and using them to tell stories that matter. The panelists emphasised the importance of not exaggerating the data or misinterpreting it.

Many useful sessions like how to find data for Asia, data clean up and visualisation workshops, tips and tools for collaboration etc. helped us gain new skills. The very interesting session on digging data from the internet, by Paul Myers, was an eye-opener. Such techniques are not taught in today’s journalism classrooms, but they are something every journalist needs to learn.

Meeting the DocumentCloud team!

A session by Mark Horvit, Executive Director of Investigative Reporters and Editors network, on  DocumentCloud explained how to use the tool. I was already familiar with the tool, but attended the session as I did not want to miss a chance to interact with the team that founded the tool, and learn more from them.

Founded in 2009 with a grant from the Knight News Challenge, DocumentCloud is a tool that helps journalists upload and analyse documents. It is “an online catalog of primary source documents and a set of tools to help journalists get more out of source documents,” as their blog puts it. DocumentCloud became a project of Investigative Reporters and Editors in June 2011. It is a stellar example of how technology can help make the mundane tasks in journalism easier.

It lets one showcase chosen parts of the document. One can identify and analyse places, names, numbers and other parameters, once a document is uploaded into the website. The attendees were also enlightened on how unnecessary uploading of documents causes a burden to the network that is being used by hundreds of reporters worldwide.

‘Most beloved institutions deserve no soft corner’

The icing on the cake was the inspiring keynote address by the Pulitzer-winning journalist, Boston Globe’s Walter V Robinson, who unearthed the Roman Catholic clergy sexual abuse scandal. “Our most beloved institutions deserve the same treatment as political and public organisations when it comes to scrutiny,” he said emphasising on the importance of neutrality in journalism – a relevant point today, in the era of corporate-funded media houses not being able to touch certain issues that overlap with the interests of the investors.

He shared his fears and hopes about future of investigative journalism, analysed the funding trends and acknowledged the kind of work that is happening in the investigative journalism field. “To me, you are all Spot Light reporters, for the great journalism you have done and will do, for your energy, for your passion, for your courage… and for knowing with certainty that there is no injustice however grave that cannot be eradicated by those who unearth the truth,” he added. (Watch his full speech here – it’s inspiring.)

When I left Kathmandu, the question I had in my mind was, how to make use of the things I learnt, to enable better journalism. I have been pondering about it – where are we lacking, what can be done?

Glimpses from IJAsia-2016

All talks and sessions from Investigative Journalism Conference can be seen here.

Tipsheets and presentations from the conference can be seen here.

Lack of mentoring a problem for data journalism

That there exists interest in doing data-based and investigative journalism in India is heartening to know, and gives one hope. But, the practitioners are still a minority, given the number of journalists in the country, and size of media industry. While techniques such as sting operations are used frequently, adding solid data-based background to such stories would make them indisputable and increase the weight of stories.

But this does not happen, because of many reasons. Journalists see lack of access and availability of official government data as a problem for good data-based journalism. “There is no one source to get all the information. Also most of this data is locked away in jpegs or pdfs which makes it very difficult for people to extract. This makes the process tiring and inconvenient,” says Sanjit Oberai, Data Editor, Money Control. He suggests that government data be updated frequently and made downloadable in excel sheets for the interested.

“I think a lot of journalists are not very keen on looking at data stories because it involves using excel sheets and is time-consuming. Also many are not sure on how to go about writing or what are the appropriate ways of telling stories using this information. Lack of mentors in this area of journalism could be one of the hurdles. Journalism colleges must start including data-focused course as a part of their curriculum,” he suggests.

More important is the lack of solid techniques of building investigative stories backed with credible official data. This is not taught in any university. There are journalists who do such stories, but the tips and tricks, use of Right to Information Act and other nitty gritties are never shared with others. As a result, ready-made data supplied by vested interests gets space in stories.

Journalism professors are disillusioned with the quality of journalism. “The courage to speak truth to power has disappeared. Advertising revenue is important than exposing truth,” says D S Poornananda, who is currently a professor at the Department of  Journalism and Mass Communication, in Kuvempu University, Shimoga.

The revenue model of media, generally corporate or political-funded, results in lack of institutional support for investigative journalists – everything is good only as long as the story does not touch the vested interests. Once there is a problem, the journalist is left to fight his or her own battle.

Towards building stronger base

This being the situation, solutions to these issues are not easy to come by. There are data boot camps conducted by institutions like Centre for Investigative Journalism – India, The Spending & Policy Research Foundation etc. However, the attendance of mainstream media journalists is low for these, for reasons not analysed by anyone.

If we were to start with a small step towards improving the situation, what can be done in India? The first step, probably should be a system to build trust quotient and camaraderie among professional journalists, along with training the gen-next. At Oorvani Foundation, we thought of two things:

1) To help journalism education, with concepts, tips and tools that will empower students with the understanding of quality journalism. We have started working on this, through our new initiative, Co Media Lab, with workshops and internships for students, and supporting events in journalism schools. We also conduct citizen journalism and community journalism workshops, where we bring in concepts of data and research. This is limited to Bengaluru for now, and will be expanded as we grow.

2)  A virtual network of journalists in India, that will offer a peek into national and international standards in journalism, and opportunities, and serve as a connecting platform for freelance and fulltime journalists. Anything related to quality in journalism can be shared – data leads, tips, tricks, story leads, unique stories, good stories – and above all, a lot of nonjudgmental positivism. Work on this is yet to start, though we have a broad framework in mind.

These are just a few steps to help journalism thrive, and make it more data-driven and solid, while we will continue to work on our own data-driven, solution-oriented and insightful stories on cities. If anyone has any thoughts on the topic, please feel free to share!