Unleashing narratives: the importance of local partners in investigative journalism

Unleashing narratives: the importance of local partners in investigative journalism

News addresses a number of topics of overriding importance. One of these is climate change and its consequences on the planet. Much has been said in recent years: myriads of investigative content have been produced by the most renowned newspapers, holding multinational corporations accountable and pushing governments to take direct and effective action; at the same time, the need of civil society to fight and implement good practices to prevent disastrous consequences is ever stronger. Despite the needed push to call for actions carried out by activists and journalists, the voices of those most affected by these global phenomena are often lacking or replaced. For instance, Indigenous communities are among them.

 “There is no ethical investigative reporting about Indigenous communities without an Indigenous person reporting, photographing, or editing that story”, says journalist Tristan Ahtone. This is as true as it is little promoted.


Luckily, there are projects which focus specifically on this perspective, in order to make up for the incompleteness of information. The goal is to give an exhaustive picture on the front of investigative journalism, exploring the issue by privileging the voices coming from the communities directly affected by it.

Collaborative journalism in the South Pacific Region

“Pacific stories are sometimes reported through the lens of major countries – as a geopolitical football,” said Kate Lyons, a Pacific editor for the Guardian Australia. “Data tells part of the story, but, without Pacific reporters, we wouldn’t have gotten the human stories, the community understanding, and the amazing images”. The South Pacific area is one at risk of major impacts due to climate change. It is an oceanic geographical area larger than Australia and rich in complexity.

Noting the poor media coverage and the need for native reporters’ take on the subject, the Guardian Australia, supported by The Judith Neilson Institute, started collaborating with local journalists on several investigative projects. The 20-series story “Pacific Plunder”, which explored the exploitation of natural resources in the region, was among them. The reportage addressed the following questions: How much timber, fish stock, and minerals are removed from Pacific nations? What is the destination and the environmental costs of it?

What promises to Indigenous communities are being broken? Ultimately, three of these stories were addressed in a panel at the 12th Global Investigative Journalism Conference, giving big resonance to the effort and work of local journalists. In remote areas such as that of the South Pacific, data and sources that are provided by journalists who understand the story are required for the internal connections to the local community and the ability of reporters to identify issues within their land. Lyons adds saying that it is important: “to pay them, to train them, to get their stories out there […] these reporters do brave journalism in incredibly difficult circumstances.”

These difficult circumstances can be identified in the safety implications of reporting on controversial topics for a local. Despite that, the decentralized and networked sources for data guarantee the accuracy of information. This means that a local reporter knows who to talk to and how to get the story. Moreover, the interaction with the rest of the community is simpler, as both language and cultural aspects are shared.

Peruvian investigative journalism

In the most remote areas of Latin America, communities refer to popular community radios to get news. According to the Third Census of Native Communities, conducted by the National Institute of Statistics, 50.3% of native and farming communities use radio as their main media platform. Therefore, these radios are of fundamental importance as they allow people to call directly to raise concerns, add information and ultimately to hear something that is relevant to them. The reason? These radios make sure to convey information in the regional dialect instead of using Spanish.

In fact, most Indigenous communities still speak traditional and pre-colonial languages. For example, in the Latin American region of Peru, the Quechua Chanka dialect is spoken in the areas of Ayacucho and Apurímac, both south east of the capital Lima. In these regions, understanding and fluency of the Spanish language can be poor, making it difficult to rely on traditional media to receive and send communications. Therefore, the intention of the radios is to provide understandable content and possibility for interaction with the listeners.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, indigenous Latin American populations were cut off from content concerning precautionary measures, effects and treatments. First, because most of the content was delivered in Spanish, but most importantly because medical language is not a universal concept. In fact, according to native traditions, the concept of disease and treatment is different, some shamanic ritual traditions persist and ultimately external communications with respect to these topics are often difficult. In this context, an example of independent investigative journalism was brought forward by the Peruvian investigative network OjoPúblico.

An alliance between community and regional radio stations, aided by OjoPúblico, has begun to create a close network to promote COVID related information among Indigenous communities, making the contents understandable and assimilable. The initiative brought together interpreters, community journalists, and specialists from different disciplines. In particular, the journalist Yanua Atamain, originally from the San Martin region, Peru, committed to interpret and publish messages about COVID-19 for a project called Checkos en Lenguas (Fact-checking in Indigenous Languages). This effort involved going to remote areas of his region to speak with older community members and make sure the spelling and medical meaning were understandable to all.

“It’s a thousand times better to communicate in the native language,” says Atamain, “The Iinia language transmits feelings and thoughts that cannot be expressed in Spanish. I feel I’m making history, resistance by participating in this project”. Can we therefore consider these as examples of effective investigative journalism?. Yes, if we still believe that journalism is a service to communities. If so, we should consider the voices of locals and independent reporters fundamental to support the communities they belong to, to open up space for narratives which accounts for the complexity and challenges of the contemporary landscape.

Carlotta Sofia Grassi


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