Recently, teams from the Center of Investigative Reporting (CIR), UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting (IRP) and Frontline spoke about their award-winning projects on a panel entitled “Investigative Reporting Across Platforms.” The event, moderated by Sheila Coronel, the new academic dean at the Columbia Journalism School, discussed the challenges of creating an investigative video piece.
Rape in the Fields tells the story of undocumented migrant women, while Broken Shield looks at the emotionally and mentally disabled. Both pieces focus on the voiceless, the powerless and the abuses committed against them, which are often secret, hidden and difficult to document. Both these stories faced many challenges, including finding sources to speak on-camera as well as show the magnitude and the extent of the problem, to go beyond just individual stories and show there is something systematically wrong in these issues.
The following are excerpts from the panel discussion.
How did you decide on what medium would be best for your story?
Susan Reber (CIR) Broken Shield: I think it comes down to the fundamentals of who are the characters in your stories, the people who exemplify the struggles. People need to understand. They need to have some kind of way to connect with a human being in order to understand the basic principles of what went wrong.
In Jennifer’s room [from Broken Shield], it experiments in a lot of different ways, combining art with the narrative arc. It was actually a solution to a problem.
We had a story that we really wanted to tell and we didn’t have any other way of doing it. This story was entirely sourced and verified and yet the grandmother of the girl was not willing to be on camera or even have her voice recorded for fear of identifying the grandson who is the baby born under rape. So here you have this incredible compelling story, at the heart of what went wrong.
We absolutely had to do this story and this was the result. [Watch Jennifer’s room here.]
Lowell Bergma (IRP) (FRONTLINE) Rape in the Fields: Yes, we could have had done some prints stories and some radio stories, but I think the ability to actually pull this off as a film with people on camera dramatically increase the impact and the reach of the story.
But the fact is, there are many stories –even right here in New York City– where there is no data. And right now there is a big fad on data journalism and big data and especially when you’re talking, for instance, income inequality. When you’re talking about people who don’t have assets, who don’t have legal standing, who are the invisible part of our population, you’re not going to find a lot of data and so that’s what made this story different. We were pushing good shoe-leather reporting and trying to get the story done. It doesn’t always work, but in this case it did.
How do you translate that data into a visual story?
Andrés Cediel (IRP) (FRONTLINE) Rape in the Fields: That’s a very basic storytelling question. I know when you’d asked the multiplatform question earlier, what’s the best way to tell this story, our problem was not that there wasn’t enough women out there, there were women everywhere we looked, every farming town we went to –there were stories everywhere. We met with women in cafes, we had lunch, we met with their lawyers; there were a lot of women who were willing to talk to us off the record or they wanted to talk to us and conceal their faces.
But, we still needed to find somebody who was going to be the face of the film. That’s the only way we were going to connect with the data. We had two things happening: we had to find the emotional center of our film and we also had to gather this data. And for six months we had neither.
Can you talk about the process of collaborating on a large project?
SR: I feel that over time we push harder, we aim higher in a collaborative setting, especially if you are trying to tell the story in multiple ways. You don’t get tunnel vision so easily.
There is an internal editing in the team. I find it’s just a very satisfying way to do challenging stories that if you were on your own, I don’t know how you would do it.
In Rape in the Fields what were some of the challenges in finding someone to share their story on camera? What was your strategy?
AC: Get ready for some rejection, but also be completely honest with people.
In this case, our intention was to tell their story, put it on national television, put it on the radio, put it in newspapers and let them know that’s what we’re planning on doing so that they could start to process how that’s was going to affect them. We couldn’t promise them all the things that they wanted. They were afraid they were going to lose their jobs, they were afraid they were going to be deported, they were afraid their husbands were going to leave them. And they would ask us, can you protect me from that? And we had to tell them no, we can’t, we’re journalists.
Another thing to point out is that you don’t get to email your sources, let’s met at the cafe and let’s go talk. These people [undocumented migrants] by definition are living off the grid. They are not necessarily using their real names, they have prepaid cell phones that they use; a lot of them don’t have Internet. These are people, living in unincorporated parts of the state. Their place of employment is changing all the time. You really have to build trust with them. You have to go where they are. We logged a lot of miles up and down the interstate and the country and building these relationships so they would feel they could put their trust in us to tell their story.
What advice would you give to a young investigative journalist?
LB: One thing I would say, if you do have the resources or if it’s a local story you should go out and meet people. It’s very easy, at most you might know to hang up the phone. The old fashion thing of going and knocking on somebody’s door and meeting them and talking to them, will 9 out of 10 times will be a lot better than a phone call.