On Tuesday I will be hosting the award-winning investigative journalist and FOI campaigner Jenna Corderoy at the Lyra McKee Memorial Lecture. Ahead of the event, I asked Jenna about her tips on investigations, FOI, confidence, and the challenges facing the industry.
What’s the story you have learned the most from?
The story that I learned the most from was definitely our Clearing House investigation. Back in November 2020, we revealed the existence of a unit within the heart of government, which screened Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and instructed government departments on how to respond to requests. The unit circulated the names of requesters across Whitehall, notably the names of journalists.
There were serious concerns about its operation. Under the FOI Act,I had submitted a FOI request in 2018 to obtain more details about the unit. I had to go to an information tribunal several years later to argue that more information should be disclosed about it.
We won, but the story did not stop there. The tribunal victory sparked a committee inquiry, and later the Cabinet Office announced it would radically overhaul the Clearing House.
This investigation lasted for years, and I still write about it.
I think this investigation taught me about persistence and how to push for change. We organised open letters, signed by editors of major media publications, calling for an investigation on how FOI requests are handled. We have generated a lot of interest over FOI issues.
But it also taught me about the lengths that the government would go to keep information withheld. Our FOI battle lasted for about three years, and when we were publishing our investigations, the government branded our reporting as “ridiculous and tendentious”. They even published a blog post to undermine our journalism.
What would be your advice to student journalists who want to make a difference but are reluctant to join an industry that doesn’t represent them?
I very much recognise that the media industry lacks diversity. I think some progress is being made, but we still have a long, long way to go. It can be a tough environment to navigate, especially for those who are starting out in journalism.
But there are media outlets within the industry that allow their writers to produce journalism that makes a difference, and these outlets try their best to be representative and supportive.
I think one of the best things that student journalists can do is research. Research the journalists and writers you like to read. Research the publications that they write for. Research media outlets which you feel might reflect your values and backgrounds.
There are lots of exciting publications out there, so see what kind of stories they commission and start pitching.
I’m very biased, but I would say openDemocracy is one of those outlets where journalism can make a real difference, and we have launched several, successful campaigns over the years.
We have a team that specialises in feminist investigative journalism (I would recommend reading what the Tracking the Backlash team produces).
You also have Liberty Investigates, which specialises in reporting on human right abuses, and Greenpeace’s Unearthed which has produced some of the greatest environmental investigations.
Student journalists might want to consider setting up their own media outlets in the future. It’s tough to do, but not impossible.
The Ferret, which is a great investigative journalism platform in Scotland, was set up by a group of freelance journalists and through subscriptions they’ve managed to sustain themselves for years.
I’m also a big fan of the Bristol Cable, an independent media outlet born out of crowdfunding, which has produced great journalism over the years.
Aspiring journalists often struggle with confidence and imposter syndrome. How have you dealt with those challenges in your own career?
I do struggle with confidence and there have been times where I’ve had imposter syndrome – so it’s not just student journalists that struggle!
There was one time where I almost quit a job on the first day as I felt I just didn’t have the experience (which was not true). I reckon that there are a lot of senior journalists and editors who suffer from a lack of confidence.
It sounds like a cliche but I can be my worst enemy. But there are certain techniques I try to use to help me cope. I try to remind myself of all the hard work I’ve done over the years and what I’ve achieved (big or small) in my career. It’s a nice feeling!
I also try to listen to praise (I’m not so great at that, but I’m learning).
It’s also nice when I have honest conversations with journalist friends about confidence.
One of the biggest challenges student journalists face is getting people to respond to approaches and agree to interviews. What tips would you give on that front?
I get quite a few requests asking if I want to be interviewed for an article or a video, so I do have some tips for student journalists to get people to respond.
First, if you’re approaching someone via email, spell the person’s name right.
Second, say why you want to interview them and what the interview is for exactly. Be open.
Third, watch the tone of your messages. I’m more likely to respond to requests if they’re polite.
Lastly, and especially when approaching experts and politicians, show off that you’ve done your research about them – you just need a couple of lines.
For example, ‘I saw that you wrote a book on/raised a parliamentary question on a topic, therefore I’d like to interview you on the same topic’, and so on.
You’ve used FOI a lot in your work: what would be your tips on getting started with FOI?
It’s an incredibly powerful tool and what’s great about it is it’s a free resource. There are lots of stories waiting to be obtained through FOI, and I suppose the best starting point is to read a variety of stories which mention how FOI was used.
I would also look at the FOIs on mySociety’s WhatDoTheyKnow website which can be a great source of inspiration. You can see which requests are successful and which ones are rejected.
I would also recommend Matt Burgess’ book ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guide for UK Journalists.’ It tells you everything you need to know.
What do you think are the biggest issues facing journalism right now — and where is there room for optimism?
Where do I start? Newsrooms are still not representative, and the industry has a long, long way to go in addressing this lack of diversity.
I do feel that some progress has been made, in the sense that I think we’re having more conversations about how to make newsrooms and reporting more representative. But there needs to be a radical change, with more efforts at retaining and supporting staff from marginalised and disadvantaged backgrounds. Senior roles are still dominated by those who are white, male, and from privileged backgrounds.
There is room for optimism, and I’m seeing a lot of young journalists break through. There are also wonderful initiatives out there.
We have the Lyra McKee Bursary Scheme run by the amazing Centre for Investigative Journalism. It’s a training and mentoring scheme for people from underprivileged backgrounds who aspire to become journalists.
I’m also excited to read about the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s new pilot project, where they will work with marginalised communities on investigations.
You also have the Aziz Foundation which provides journalism scholarships and bursaries for British Muslims.
For those who want to be journalists, do familiarise yourself with Journo Resources. It’s a great website which lists journalism apprenticeship and graduate schemes, as well as other opportunities.
Jenna Corderoy is speaking at Birmingham City University’s Lyra McKee Memorial Lecture on Tuesday March 28 from 5.30pm. Free tickets are available on Eventbrite.