Under-reported news

Conversations with Data: #30

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If a story isn’t reported, did it even happen? Too often, what’s reported dictates what matters, often leaving affected communities and individuals without a voice.

But these stories don’t need to remain invisible. Data reporting offers a unique opportunity to dig below the status quo and shed new light on a situation.

In this 30th edition of Conversations with Data, we’ll be highlighting examples where journalists in our community have done just that.

Before we get started though, SPIEGEL ONLINE’s Christina Elmer sent through some general tips on bringing untold stories to light with data:

“In my experience, a big challenge is to attract attention and tell stories that truly affect people. Data journalism can raise awareness or present context in detail, but it also has to connect to the reality of our readers' lives in a concrete way. With under-reported topics, that is especially challenging. From my point of view, a holistic approach is advisable in such cases, linking data-based investigations with conventional reporting, especially with multimedia content.”

Under-reported issues you reported on

1. Women’s land rights

In many African countries, if women become widows and they don’t have any male descendants, they risk losing everything they own in favor of another man from their husband’s family, even if they’ve never met before. But a practice in northern Tanzania, called ‘Nyumba ntobhu’, offers some women a solution. It allows older widows, without male descendents, to marry a younger woman who does. Marta Martinez, also an EJC-grantee, told us about digging deeper into this under-reported story.

“We used paralegals on the ground to tell us about how many female marriages there were in 10 different villages and it turned out that the number of female marriages now represented over 20% of households,” she explained.

“I'd say that, even if it's at a very small scale, like we did in Tarime district in Tanzania, relying on local NGOs, it is worth trying to gather some data that will make your story factually stronger, and will actually allow you to monitor the situation over time. For example, if we wanted to continue our reporting in the future on this issue, or if someone else wants to expand this to another country to compare trends, having the data would allow journalists, academics, researchers, anyone interested, really, to build on that knowledge and expand it -- so everyone benefits!”

2. Access to drugs and unethical practices

Access to essential drugs and shortages of cheap medicines is still an under-reported issue in many localities. Keila Guimarães, from the Penicillin Project, told us more.

The project, which investigates a long worldwide shortage of penicillin, presented challenges both because of the global scale of the medicines' trade and supply chain, as well as the scarcity of open data sources on the drug industry.

In the end, “it required thorough examination of documents from various medicines' regulatory agencies -- from the US to Brazil to China -- interviews with dozens of experts throughout the world, analysis of databases from the World Health Organization, the Global Burden of Disease Study, the UN Trade, and various other data sources. The feeling we had at the time was that relevant information to bring light to this issue was scattered all over and our work was not just to collect it, but also merge, combine and create meaning out of it.”

Looking back, her advice for other journalists reporting on similarly hidden stories is to “look for the data, but connect with people”.

“Every expert I spoke with opened doors to another expert and that chain was crucial in helping me to better understand the documents and the data I found during my research phase.”

Eva Belmonte is another data journalist working on the medicine beat for Civio -- this time, focussing on the pharmaceutical industry’s financial relationships with Spanish doctors. Here’s what she had to say:

“The issue has been discussed in the media, but in a very superficial way, just repeating what the pharmaceutical companies spinned: news articles were based entirely on press releases, mentioning the overall amount paid, without context and without further breakdown. We analysed the data thoroughly to explore, first, how transparent each company was in their disclosure (spoiler, very little), denounce that doctors who receive more money are less transparent and compare the money spent on Spanish doctors vs those in other countries. A year later, we published for the first time the names of those doctors receiving the largest amounts (sometimes bigger than their annual salaries) and we investigated whether or not they declared their conflicts of interest. In both cases, six people had to work for a few months to convert very cumbersome PDF documents from 145 pharmaceutical companies, which involved both custom conversion scripts and a lot of manual cleaning work.”

Turning to another sinister drug-related story, Anuradha Nagaraj, the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF)’s South India Correspondent, uncovered a dangerous practice where garment workers were given unnamed drugs for period pains. The aim was to keep production lines running, but in the end more than half of these women experienced serious health issues.

It was a difficult story to establish, Anuradha told us: “it took more than a year to generate data through detailed interviews of 100 women in Tamil Nadu to establish a trend of illegal pills being given to young workers to keep production lines running.”

Her tip: “These stories take time and persistence and endless digging –- but they do pay off if they work out.”

3. Gun violence and police killings

Back in 2016, Fabio Teixeira, TRF’s Brazil Correspondent, stumbled upon an important lead, which would eventually help shed light on a trend of police killings in Rio de Janeiro.

It was a list of all killings between 2010 and 2015 and, after requesting the spreadsheet it was based on, he found it included the names of all the police involved.

“Eleven months of data work and investigation later, I reported for O Globo that 20 policemen were involved in the deaths of 356 people -- 10% of all people killed by police during that period. Data for under-reported issues is hard to come by, especially in third world countries. If someone hands you a list, try to access the database behind it. You never know what you may find!”

Anastasia Valeeva, Co-founder School of Data Kyrgyzstan, also shared a great example of data reporting in this area: The True Cost of Gun Violence in America by Mother Jones.

“This is a story based on the absence of data, rather than on its analysis. The attempts to estimate this cost and the evidence of the truth being hidden, under-reported for a purpose, is what makes it so powerful,” she explained.

“I believe telling under-reported news is one of the magic features of data journalism since it is only with the help of data that you can reveal systematic wrongdoings of a system that go unnoticed, sometimes for years, and with these findings, we can tell invisible stories.”

4. Feeding the world

To date, very few journalistic investigations have dug into what drives the agricultural trade model that feeds the world. That is, until The Enslaved Land project came along.

“In 2016, El Diario and El Faro joined forces to investigate five crops (sugar, coffee, palm oil, bananas, cocoa) consumed widely in Europe and the US and we revealed how land property, corruption, organised crime, local conflicts and supply chains of certain products are still part of a system of colonialism,” said Raúl Sánchez, one of the EJC-grantees behind the story.

Their main learning: “Use the story of a specific crop to explain the global phenomenon and also let the data take you to the focus of the story.”

Also looking at food security, Mirjam Leunissen and Stan Putman from de Volkskrant took an innovative approach to the question: ‘How to feed 10 billion people in 2050?’

Their project, De Voedselzaak, responded to reader suggestions that forced birth control could solve population growth and ensuing food insecurity crises.

How? “We gave them an interactive calculator (zo groeit de wereldbevolking verder) to let them explore what changes in birth rates would actually be needed. Using a variety of data and text, we also explain why it is better to invest in socio-economic improvement than forced birth control to change,” Stan told us.

While this edition has provided a snippet of under-reported stories out there, there are plenty more waiting to be uncovered. To help, the EJC currently has an open call for grants worth an average of €15,000 for French and German-speaking journalists. Find out more here.

Our next conversation

After collecting your favourite charts and maps, we’ll now be turning our attending to those visuals you weren’t so fond of. You know, charts that got it wrong, or ever-so misleading maps. Help us showcase what-not-to-do, by submitting your favourite examples of inaccurate or confusing data visualisations.

As always, comment to let us know what you’d like us to feature in our future editions.

Until next time,

Madolyn from the EJC Data team

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