SHU student learns from the experts at investigative journalism conference

CIJ conference

Sheffield Hallam University second year student Molly Williams attended the UK’s biggest investigative journalism conference this summer in preparation for her final year dissertation. Here she discusses some of the highlights from the event.

“For journalists, the defining value is honesty – the attempt to tell the truth. That is our primary purpose. All that we do – all that is said about us – must flow from the single source of truth-telling” says Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News.

The Centre for Investigative Journalism, CIJ, has taught in-depth story-telling techniques to thousands of journalists from across the world since 2003. Their three-day summer school at Goldsmiths University is a highlight in the calendars of many professional reporters. This year’s theme was ‘How to Fight Alternative Facts’ and I was fortunate enough to attend the final day.

On the early train from Sheffield to London I started the day like any good journo student would, with Harold Evans’ Good Times, Bad Times and the latest episode of The Tip Off podcast. Journalist Anabel Hernandez kicked off the conference and gave an impassioned talk about the dangers she faced investigating the narcotics trade in Mexico. Some of the experiences she shared sent shivers down my spine but made me all the more eager to find out more.

“Living to keep silent about crime and corruption is just another way of dying”, said Anabel. She added that the risk to journalists exercising freedom of expression in Mexico is severe with seven journalists having been murdered so far this year simply for doing their job.

Anabel made a sobering point that she had not been threatened by criminals she’s investigated but by those we would expect to trust. She warned: “The threats against me don’t come from the drug cartels. They come from the government, the chief of police, the church, and businessmen. Corruption is everywhere.”

As the conference progressed speakers and delegates explored various themes in investigative journalism from combating disinformation to making the most of data in stories. Michelle Ye Hee Lee of the Washington Post’s Fact Checker gave an insight into how her team investigate false claims made by US politicians. Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump is one of the most untruthful politicians they have fact checked since they started in 2007, having made over 669 false statements since his inauguration.

Later, a panel, including Natalia Antelava of Coda Story, Jessikka Aro who was attacked by Russian trolls for investigating Russian fake news, and Alistair Reid of the Press Association, examined the damaging but sometimes entertaining effects of fake news. A consensus was made that, rather than try to refute every hoax claim, journalists should aim to make the truth more shareable than the lie. Some ideas were debated about how best to achieve this such as using humour to encourage shares of accurate news and nofollow links when talking about fake news online to avoid spreading the lies further.

During a break I grabbed an opportunity to chat with Lucas Amin who is currently working with My Society on the new WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, an update to the top Freedom of Information website in the UK. And one of the founders of The Bristol Cable, a non-profit publication, Adam Cantwell  told me all about his experience with the Freedom of Information Act, his work at The Cable and how he got started in journalism. I’m currently researching around FOI in preparation for my dissertation next year which will look into local journalists’ use of FOIA so this was a brilliant opportunity to do some early fieldwork.

The conference concluded with a lecture on the potential for data to improve stories. “I’ve never read a story in a newspaper, or online, that couldn’t be enhanced by data”, said Temple University lecturer and former digital editor of The Guardian Aron Pilhofer. He added: “You don’t need to know how to code but you need to know what’s possible so you can work with people who do… The future is going to be nerdier than it is now and we all need to jump on the nerd band wagon.”

A huge thank you to the journalism course for helping support my trip to the conference and for continuously inspiring me to learn more about journalism. The lessons learned at the conference will be invaluable to my work on my dissertation and development as a journalist.