Investigating mass killings takes time — and that can be both dangerous and grueling for journalists.
Clare Baldwin and Andrew Marshall spent 18 months reporting on Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs for Reuters, for which they won a Pulitzer Prize. For Mago Torres and Marcela Turati, who were part of an award-winning group of Mexican journalists investigating mass graves across the country, the process took two years.
Both teams offered advice on safety, security, and self-care at the 11th Global Investigative Journalism Conference.
1. Don’t downplay your emotional response
When you spend months talking to people who are traumatized by the killing or disappearance of a family member, it’s natural for a journalist to have an emotional response. “It’s very easy to downplay what you’re feeling because you’re not suffering like they are,” said Marshall. “But cumulatively that can be quite dangerous, so you really have to look after yourself.”
It’s important to look out for warning signs that you’re not coping with the trauma, Marshall said. He also recommends talking regularly with friends and family, taking frequent breaks from the situation you’re reporting on and, if you need, seeking professional support. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and the Committee to Protect Journalists are two organizations that have good resources for people seeking help.
2. Move around and have an escape plan
There are some basic safety precautions that the Reuters team took in the Philippines, which became even more critical as they started publishing stories and the authorities became increasingly hostile. “You move hotels regularly,” said Baldwin. “It was important to have a driver and the ability to move independently, so that if things become unsafe or you’re ready to leave you can do that on your own decision and you’re not waiting around for a taxi.”
3. Have a team that you trust
At the beginning of the project, Baldwin and Marshall would swap in and out of the country. Every time they switched, they would overlap for a couple of days to catch each other up on everything that had happened. Both reporters got to know the communities and neighborhoods they were covering really well, and that made it easier to help keep each other safe. “We’d regularly send each other GPS coordinates [using] smartphones,” Baldwin said.
Later on, Baldwin and Marshall started reporting together more often. It was useful to have another pair of eyes, and the environment was becoming more hostile. In one police station, for example, Baldwin was confronted by an aggressive officer and wasn’t able to talk to the person in charge of the station’s crime records. When they returned together, Marshall kept the officer chatting while Baldwin was able to get the records they needed.
4. Build transparency and trust with your colleagues
Torres and Turati were part of a group of independent journalists working together remotely from different locations, so frequent communication was key to the project. They would share locations, have regular check-ins, and set up a WhatsApp group for emotional support.
“Life happens while we are working,” Torres said. During the 2-year investigation, members of the team moved homes and had babies. It was important for them to check in with each other not only on the story but also on how it was impacting their lives. This helped the journalists feel comfortable telling each other if they needed to take a short break. “Even if you have good relationships, being transparent and honest with your team takes time,” Torres said.
These relationships were also critical when it came time to write the story. They felt a great responsibility to the families of people who had disappeared, right down to the words they used and how they presented the data. “Because of our audience and because of the topic, I think that’s important to talk about [these things] constantly,” Torres said.
5. Collect data if you can’t get to the field
Initially, the Mexican journalists planned to go to the mass graves they were reporting on, but it soon became clear it wouldn’t be safe. When Turati and her colleagues visited a few sites, they were told: “It’s better that you leave.” They realized that they would need to focus on collecting data, so they concentrated on filing Freedom of Information requests for official records related to the mass graves.
But it was still important for the team to remember that working on data would not protect them from the emotional fallout of the investigation. “When you’re working with a database, with information, you think that you have a certain distance and so maybe I’m not going to be affected,” said Torres, “then suddenly it tortures you.”
6. Always protect your sources
Beyond their own safety precautions, Baldwin and Marshall took care to protect the safety of their sources. They carefully laid out for people what it meant to use their name in the story, and would not use someone’s name if they were at all hesitant. “We let them set the pace of conversation,” Baldwin said. As they were working at night, Baldwin and Marshall would sometimes arrive at a crime scene just minutes after the victim had been shot. “That might not be the best time to do the interview [with the family],” Baldwin said. “So we’d take contact information and go back a couple of days later.”
Charlotte Alfred is an investigative journalist and editor who has reported from the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and the US. Her work has been featured by HuffPost, De Correspondent, The Guardian, News Deeply, Zeit Online, El Diario, and First Draft, amongst others.