18 Jan The part of your job that no one pays for
In the beginning of December I started on an investigative story. Last Saturday I found out that there is no story to my investigation. After working through 13 interviews, 16 articles and 18 official documents, I had nothing.
I was investigating child marriages of asylum seekers who are arriving or have arrived in Finland. I had already done a similar, small scale investigation in Sweden and wanted to look into how child brides are being taken into account in Finland.
Turns out: pretty fucking well.
As human right issues are close to my heart, I’m relieved that I don’t have a story and that Finnish authorities are doing a hell of a good job. (Something that Finland is better at than Sweden, btw!) But at the same time I ponder what if this investigation wouldn’t have been merely a school assignment – what if I was a freelancer who just lost a month’s salary.
In freelance journalism no one pays for the background research you’ve done, the interviews conducted or the fact checking you’ve struggled through. Even though you now would have some sort of shimmy shammy publishing deal with a media outlet before your story is ready, that doesn’t guarantee a thing regarding your payment.
You or the publisher can never be 100 percent sure that there is a story behind your investigation. And even though there would be a story to tell, getting hands on the vital info that proves your case might be impossible.
And so, the only thing that gets that ka-ching on a freelancer’s bank account and another month’s rent paid is a published story.
Right or wrong?
Media changes but organisations don’t. Only the people inside the organisation change. That is why even journalists have to take a stance in making a difference – not only in our society but also in our own field of work.
From the beginning of my studies we journalism students were taught one thing: don’t do free work as doing it will diminish the work of others. In the same way we shouldn’t do work under fear of not having a story to publish. Working with this fear might lead to devastating outcomes in terms of source credibility and wanting to find certain kind of answers.
Instead of working for free or under pressure, ask for a contract in which you are paid even though your story wouldn’t fly. The risk of an investigation leading to a dead end shouldn’t lie upon the shoulders of a single journalist.
Remember to check also your legal back-up. In the rare occasion that something actually goes wrong, make sure that the media outlet you are freelancing for is standing behind you. They have the resources to do it. Now we need to ask for their will.
Till then you have to “love all, trust few and paddle your own canoe.” These are life saving, learn-by-heart rules from Fredrik Laurin.
So what did I do with my investigation? Rather of trying to fight the counterflow, I paddled my own canoe down the stream it went by.
Even though I didn’t uncover any new information about child marriages, I was able to track down a line of practises in which the head didn’t know what the hands were doing. From this information–instead of writing a news story–I will produce a round up, a kind of guideline for the authorities. Hopefully it helps the head in understanding what the hands are up to.
Journalism’s purpose is to provide new information but it’s purpose is also to help us understand. Even though my investigation didn’t end up as a journalistic article, the work I put into it wasn’t in vain. Background research has its value. It’s up to the journalist to make something useful out of it.