Uncovering Asia

Digging data, digging graves

Christmas came early for me this year when I was given the opportunity to participate in “Uncovering Asia,” the first investigative journalism conference in the continent.

Team INQUIRER.net at Uncovering Asia. (L-R) Me, Editor-in-Chief John Nery, NewsLab Lead Matikas Santos, and reporter Julliane Love De Jesus.

Team INQUIRER.net at Uncovering Asia. (L-R) Me, Editor-in-Chief John Nery, NewsLab Lead Matikas Santos, and reporter Julliane Love De Jesus.

For two days in November, our team attended lectures on investigative reporting, security and data journalism. During coffee and lunch breaks we were able to chat with fellow journalists from different parts of the region.

While Asia is known for its diversity, the conference showed that journalists from various nations face similar challenges. It made us realize that we can learn a lot from the experiences of our colleagues.

Uncovering Asia reminded me to think outside the box, to dig deeper for data, and to maximize opportunities for collaboration.

By the end of Day 1, I was inspired, enraged and motivated.

INSPIRED by Sheila Coronel’s keynote address and several talks by veteran journalists (which I will detail below);

ENRAGED by the issues of corruption and poverty in the region, as well as the unresolved Ampatuan massacre (which we commemorated through a candlelighting event after Day 1’s series of talks); and

MOTIVATED by the realization that there is a lot to be done and explored.

I was overwhelmed by ideas and lessons, to say the least. I hope to share here some of the things that I learned.

Hosted by the Global Investigative Journalism Network, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in Manila, the conference featured around 20 lectures and workshops.

I was able to attend 8 or so sessions since there were around 4 or 5 that were held simultaneously per time slot.

Below are some highlights:

[Table of Contents – click on the links]

Day 1

Welcome, opening remarks, keynote speech

How to Find and Use Data on Asia

Managing the Investigation: Pitfalls, false starts, big scores

Lightning Talks and Asian Investigative Infrastructure

CANDLE LIGHTING: International Day of Impunity and 5th anniversary of the Ampatuan massacre

Day 2

The Future of Investigative Journalism in Asia

Investigating in Conflict Zones

Workshop: Presenting Data with Google Fusion

Collaborating Across Borders

*Postscript on pre-Uncovering Asia lectures

Farewell Reception


Welcome, opening remarks, keynote speech

GIJN Executive Director David Kaplan, PCIJ Executive Director Malou Mangahas, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Media Programme Asia director Torben Stephan, and Columbia Journalism School Dean of Academic Affairs Sheila Coronel.

GIJN Executive Director David Kaplan, PCIJ Executive Director Malou Mangahas, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Media Programme Asia director Torben Stephan, and Columbia Journalism School Dean of Academic Affairs Sheila Coronel.

With about 300 media practitioners attending the event, the organizers said the turnout exceeded their expectations.

Sheila Coronel was able to hold everyone’s attention during her 30-minute speech as she rallied the troops by delivering perfect soundbytes and quotable quotes.

Some notes from her speech:

With the woman of the hour Sheila Coronel.

With the woman of the hour Sheila Coronel.

– Once journalists and citizens have had a taste of independence and freedom, it is hard to go back to the dark ages

– There was a time when the mere idea of one (printing press) made people tremble

– By forcing officials into the glare of public scrutiny, we are saying their crimes cannot be kept secret

– Our task is to make power uncomfortable

– Society needs troublemakers like us

– The gods are on our side. Let no one tell us otherwise.

How to Find and Use Data on Asia

The first session I attended was a forum on data journalism. The three speakers (Govindraj Ethiraj of IndiaSpend, Giannina Segnini of Columbia Journalism School, Yolanda Jinxin Ma of Data Journalism China) and moderator Reg Chua, data and innovation editor of Thomson Reuters, shared their experiences and insights in gathering data from government and other sources (online, NGOs, private databases).

Some insights (based on my tweets):

–  Reg Chua said data is a huge part of journ but Asia’s not well-renowned for transparency. However, he said there is information that journalists can use, if they know how and where to look for it.

– Ethiraj’s tip was to start layering 2 or 3 sets of data. By combining different studies, you are able to discover trends.

– Meanwhile, Yolanda Ma said data in China is slowly improving and that social media can be an additional (crowd)source of information.

– Segnini, on the other hand, warned against being too reliant on Google (which only indexes 30-40% of the data journalists need). She said the search engine should only be used as a bridge and that journalists should start to compile their own databases. Ethiraj says they could start with primers (as a way of creating your own knowledge).

– “I do not like to work with statistical data. I like disaggregated…Data lie as same as people,” Segnini said.

Managing the Investigation: Pitfalls, false starts, big scores

Schraven, Mangahas and Yamaguchi during a session on "Managing Investigations."

Schraven, Mangahas and Yamaguchi during a session on “Managing Investigations.”

In the afternoon, I attended a session on organizing international investigations.

David Schraven, editor-in-chief of CORRECT!V, said there are two ways of going about investigations as a group: through a Napoleon’s Army (one line of command) or a Netforce (everybody follows his/her own interest).

He discussed how to make a Netforce work. Some lessons:

– Work with people you trust

– Know their goals and help them reach it (let INTEREST be the stimulus of the investigation)

– It’s not about money; it’s about information

– Respect laws

– Share information (safety precaution also)

– Check the facts

Tomohisa Yamaguchi, deputy editor of Asahi Shimbun, then shared his publication’s unfortunate experience after retracting reports and stories that were later discovered to be erroneous.

“You cannot make a mistake in investigative reporting,” he said.

He said managing editors should be informed about confidential sources and readers should be made to understand why they should be kept anonymous.

Meanwhile, Mangahas said journalists should start to build a “portfolio” and not just write stories (specialist vs. generalist).

She said a story should survive two tests: the court of public opinion and the court of law.

Pitfalls and false starts involve sources and journalists being harmed. Mangahas said media practitioners should always admit mistakes.

Big scores, on the other hand, include “crooks” being ousted and the public being better informed about issues.

Is there a magic formula for investigative reporting? None. But Mangahas said “practice yields better results.” She added that the team should spend their limited budget on the right things (research, field work, and backup system).

“Investigative reporting is not gourmet; basic reporting is not fast food.” – Malou Mangahas

Other tips:

– Avoid being in compromising situations with sources

– Use group bylines to “spread the heat” (so no one journalist will be targeted)

– Explore cross-border collaboration

– Deadlines may not be a good idea (makes us commit mistakes)

– “Never let go. Stay with the story.”

Lightning Talks and Asian Investigative Infrastructure

We had to tend to our accommodations during the coffee break so we were a little late for the afternoon sessions.

Good thing I was able to catch my editor’s pitch at “Lightning Talks: Quick Looks at Great Projects.”

John Nery discussed the extensive research done by the Philippine Daily Inquirer for the pork barrel scam series, which eventually led to the filing of charges against Janet Lim-Napoles and several lawmakers accused of pocketing taxpayers’ money.

He also shared his plans to explore data and archived information on World War II.

After that, I dropped by the roundtable discussion on Building an Asian Investigative Journalism Network.

The speakers and the audience discussed ways to scale up existing networks in the region.

CANDLE LIGHTING: International Day of Impunity and 5th anniversary of the Ampatuan massacre

We capped off the day by attending a candle lighting activity at the EDSA Shrine to commemorate the International Day of Impunity and to remember our colleagues who perished in the infamous Ampatuan massacre five years ago.

Almost 60 people were killed in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao in November 23, 2009, just a couple of months after I graduated from college. More than half of the group were journalists. Until now, I shudder at the thought of the grisly massacre.

The senseless killing of media practitioners and civilians — and the way the bodies were disposed of (buried in shallow mass graves using a government-owned backhoe) — bolstered the call against the “culture of impunity” in the Philippines.

Journalists and human rights groups from all over the world were outraged and demanded accountability. But five years later, justice has yet to be served. There were rumors of bribery and worse, reports of witnesses being killed or threatened.

(For more information on the Ampatuan massacre, visit our special site: http://www.inquirer.net/maguindanao-massacre)

I think attending the event further impressed upon us the need to band together and to work on stories that challenge the status quo. As long as there is injustice, there is a demand for good journalism. Now, more than ever, there is a need for a media culture that encourages investigative reporting.



The Future of Investigative Journalism in Asia

Ying Chan, Sashi Kumar, Chavarong Limpattamapanee, Tomohisa Yamaguchi

Ying Chan, Sashi Kumar, Chavarong Limpattamapanee, and Tomohisa Yamaguchi.

During the plenary session, journalists from different regions in Asia talked about the challenges they face in their respective countries.

Ying Chan from Hong Kong tackled the problem of censorship in China, which has led to the arrest of journalists and bloggers.

She said journalists should be “good risk managers” (risk = losing freedom or money) and that having foreign partners creates leverage.

Sashi Kumar from India said that while they are able to report on important issues such as farmer suicides (caused by poverty), the phenomenon continues. This observation was shared by the other participants throughout the conference. Journalists expose wrongdoing but does it ever stop? Others like Sheila Coronel, however, pointed out that there have been changes. For example, officials can no longer be blatant with their excesses.

Kumar further complained about the criminalization of libel and the proliferation of paid news during elections. On the other hand, he said alternative media is able to deliver investigative journalism in its “true sense of the form” while online news networks are able to promote local investigations.

On the other hand, Yamaguchi said investigative reporting in Japan is being done by mainstream media and it has succeeded in “throwing out” prime ministers.

Chavarong Limpattamapanee of Thai Rath Daily Newspaper meanwhile said he continues to hope for more cross-border collaborations among journalists.

By the end of the session, Mangahas announced the formation of a coordinating committee for a Southeast Asian +++ (including other Asian countries) Investigative Journalism Network.

Investigating in Conflict Zones

Among the interesting lectures I attended that day was on conflict reporting.

When I was still a student, my ultimate dream was to report on wars and conflict. I had this romanticized notion that surviving or working as a correspondent in a conflict area was a badge of honor for a journalist.

Eventually, I realized that conflict reporting should not be taken lightly. Lives are on the line. It is not an adventure or a quest for recognition.

At the same time, more journalists are needed in conflict zones — to independently gather information and shed light on the complex situation.

So many things are happening in war zones — there is danger and fear.

Aamir Latif from Pakistan said civilians in conflict areas often do not want to talk. You also do not know who to trust, not even fixers (especially after the bad experience of some journalists). Once you enter a conflict area, you’re disconnected from the rest of the world. You’re on your own, Latif said.

Yuli Ismartono of Tempo Magazine (Indonesia) also shared invaluable advice. As a parachute journalist, she said research is vital in order to give an objective report. Attending press conferences, despite the propaganda, is still useful since it will allow you to countercheck information. And since it is difficult to get data from the ground, Ismartono said she usually visits the local market or the hospital to see the conflict’s effect on the economy and to get firsthand information on the casualties.

MindaNews editor Carolyn Arguillas, who we were able to chat with after the forum, said among the informations a conflict reporter should take note of are the root cause, the current phase and the duration of the conflict.

One interesting tip she shared was to list down the “cast of characters” of the conflict. Who are the lead actors, the director or the producer?

She said those who seem to be at the sidelines are just as important. Civilians, for example, who are the most important characters, are often neglected while those behind the scenes remain undetected.

She warned against “manufactured facts” and complicated writing.

Since the situation is complex already, it should be explained in simple terms — for example, by comparing the cost of an armalite bullet to one kilo of rice.

Arguillas said there are also different approaches to conflict reporting — investigative journalism and peace journalism or conflict-sensitive reporting.

Maria Ronderos, who wrote a book on paramilitarism in Colombia, said it is important to have a solid network of trusted sources when working in a dangerous area.

She said journalists should make sure that they are not putting their local guides at risk.

The more dangerous the people you are dealing with, the more transparency you need. — Maria Ronderos

Sometimes following a trail of documents is safer and more efficient, she added.

Ronderos pointed out that reporters should first and foremost make sure that they are not being used by other people.

Workshop: Presenting Data with Google Fusion

The only workshop I attended was on Google Fusion, an experimental data visualization app available online. Unfortunately, the internet connection was so bad that we were not able to do a hands-on tutorial.

Nevertheless, we learned how to create data maps and heat maps. We were also given a sneak peek of other developer tools.

Collaborating Across Borders

I was able to catch my favorite speaker, Giannina Segnini, at a forum on cross-border partnerships (During an earlier talk, Segnini shared how she was able to get interesting data by identifying linkages and exploring correlation of information — for example, she was able to get an estimate on the amount of cocaine produced in Colombia by checking the importation of its chemical precursor potassium permanganate. They found out that Colombia has been underreporting its imports, which most likely means that something is being hidden from the public.)

There, she said that the era of the “lone wolf” journalist was over.

Paul Radu, executive director of Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting, pointed out that it “takes a network (of journalists) to fight a (crime) network.”

Like Mangahas, he emphasized the importance of information, which can be traded among the media partners.

However, Segnini said it is easier said than done since journalists with the same interests still have to find each other. She said someone in another country might already be investigating the same international issue and it would be a waste if the two parties are unable to work together.

Johanna Son of Inter-Press Service also raised the problem of a language barrier in Asia.

Radu’s solution to that is the visualization of data (see how all the other topics are inter-related?).

He shared a nice website where investigators can create their own visualization projects (mostly network maps): https://vis.occrp.org/

Postscript on pre-Uncovering Asia lectures

While I was not able to attend the other sessions (especially the ones on social media), the INQUIRER.net team was able to  meet Paul Myers and Ben Richardson a day before the actual conference.

Both of them graciously gave us an hour-long talk on investigating in China (Richardson) and finding people online (Myers).

I was blown away by the tools and techniques shared by Paul Myers (I have a feeling he’ll be able to find this blog post without me tagging him) and was really interested in Richardson’s work in China (which reminds me to fix my academic status at the Asian Center).

Both of them were really nice and friendly…and the jokes…


Farewell Reception

The best way to end a journalism conference? Last minute exchange of business cards, open bar and open mic night. A “rousing finish” indeed.

“We are the world!”

Visit the Uncovering Asia website for helpful information and reference materials: http://uncoveringasia.org/tipsheets/


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