Evan Williams - Journalism Q&A

Evan Williams

Evan has been a journalist for thirty years; as of recent, he specializes in current affairs, documentaries, and investigations - typically those set in hostile environments.

He is a leading figure in investigative journalism and has received numerous accolades for his work, including an Emmy for his investigation 'Hunting Boko Haram', which hones in on Nigerian military abuses against civilians in the battle against the terrorist organization Boko Haram.

He also has extensive combat journalism experience, having gone deep into the jungles of Myanmar to cover guerilla fighting against military forces in 2006, and spending time undercover to interview dissidents struggling amidst the repressive regime under Than Shwe.

The effect of social media and portable phone cameras on the journalism industry

It is an inevitable fact that advancements in technology are bringing changes to media and journalism. Phone cameras are becoming increasingly sophisticated, which enables people to transmit the information they capture or “make them go viral” much faster. It is usually the case that when people post information online, they have an agenda in mind or something that they are trying to prove or reveal— this is where journalists play a significant role. Social media and portable cameras have dramatically improved evidence gathering and storytelling practices, especially in international human rights investigations.

However, someone with a phone is a witness and not a journalist; they are committing enactive journalism by filming it.

With the modern phenomenon of information overload, the interesting part comes down to what perspectives the people are taking and what story they are telling with this information. You can witness a police officer beating up someone and post it with the caption, “this is police brutality”, but what we may not see is the preceding three minutes in which the person violently assaults the police.

As independent journalists, meeting people who generate these materials is very important. We need to apply independent skills to these materials and take an objective stance. Nowadays people are getting more used to a partisan view, which is usually presented as reality. The same event can be portrayed in many different ways— journalists need to present the facts or launch an investigation into how things escalated to that point, who the people involved are, and what outcomes may be. We need to be very meticulous about what information we present, for example, never using footage unless we can independently verify who produced it, why they produced it. Ideally, we should gather three to four sources pertaining to the information and cross-verify them.

Do you feel like the attention span of the audience has been limited?

It is inevitable that we will be making shorter material to fit into social media, but from my point of view, there will be more desire for longer films and properly verified definitive pieces, which is what motivates me to do what I am doing now. We are under pressure to spin off shorter, bite-sized information for social media, but I don’t think it is the primary objective of the media.

Dealing with fake news and distrust of journalist institutions and mainstream media

Can fake news be rolled back? Maybe not. But people are getting more aware of how we can identify fake news, verify sources, and cross-check with other news information. With so much fast-media, it might sound very counterintuitive that one trend that is happening right now is a swing back into documentaries, especially in the younger generation. People are getting tired of the massive amounts of unverified information out there, to the point that we’re seeking a deeper understanding of the fundamentals behind fake news. Back then everyone thought documentaries were going to die, but now some of the most enthusiastic documentary-goers are young people who just want to cut through the unproven information and obtain the concrete truth.

People will eventually get more educated about how to identify fake news and become more sophisticated in identifying the facts. For example, in my opinion, Fox News might be a media organization with inflammatory views and commentaries that aren’t necessarily news; on the other hand, the New York Times might be a news source that presents more verified information.

The type of commentaries in some mainstream media are damaging how people perceive the reliability of media in general; however, the accusation that all media are presenting fake news should not be taken.

Can this faith be reinstated?

It depends on how we educate ourselves to understand or appreciate more trusted news sources, identifying reliable media. There will always be elements in the media that will try to stir up debates for ratings, and so we need to identify these opinionated pieces by ourselves.

Is there any way to regulate the media?

We have the right to speak freely— regulation on media doesn’t mean restrictions on free speech. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter— which are not traditional mainstream media— are playing their roles as places where fake news is disproven. Apart from that, there will eventually be regulations and legislations on information that are obviously factually incorrect or mere insanity. There will be a threshold where society stands up to put a limit on it.

Things are starting to come back, not against freedom of speech, but against what we think is fundamentally wrong.

What makes a story interesting and worth reporting on?

Often, the topic of reporting comes from negotiation and discussion with editors, looking at current affairs, or a lead on a story. To raise a higher bar, I focus mainly on revealing something new, such as an investigation that focuses on the people, the characters, or the value that could be added to existing news. For example, if you were able to find a hidden military document, there are many different ways you could approach investigating it. You might even go into the military and ask them for their perspective directly to reveal different views, making the story more comprehensive.

Keeping subjectivity and working under pressuring situations

Under distressing circumstances, it can be difficult both for the team and for the local people you’re working within that area to keep your head straight. However, as a professional journalist, you always need to keep yourself objective and not become too emotional about the situation, always keeping in mind that you need to present all information as verified and accurate. Being emotional undermines your work, and your role is to not get carried away in the moment, but to keep a level head and retain your feelings. You could channel it into the story, but make sure you’re just presenting the facts rather than telling the audience how to feel about the story.

To stay unbiased, training is the first and most important thing. Imagine a situation where we’re carrying out a human rights investigation- a community is being oppressed. Would you say it is biased to get their point of view? It is not. Revealing different points of view is exactly what journalists should do. You might have a government that claims that you’re being biased, but as long as you present the story and the information in a way that is safe for the people you’re filming and you get other points of view as well, which often reveals both good and bad perspectives, then it is not biased. Bias doesn’t come from the filming process, but rather what you do with the end result. Avoiding only giving one side of the story always helps you to stay unbiased.

How do you react to unexpected change, for example, if your research process doesn’t turn out how you expected it to be?

You cannot stick to your script when you get involved in the real situation. I always follow the motto:

“As soon as you get out of the plan, you tear up the plan and start all over again.”

If you don’t adapt to the situation and listen to the people to better understand what they went through, you might miss a better story, and you’re just trying to fit reality into a prison of what you thought would be true.

One instance that happened was the investigation into the Nigerian military. Initial research has shown that there are cases where Boko Haram was training children to be suicide bombers. So the next step we took was to commission a local journalist to find evidential videos. It turns out that we were not able to find evidence on this particular case, but there was another video showing a violent scene of soldiers filming themselves brutally torturing suspected Boko Haram members who claimed themselves to be innocent. So the story completely turned around to the abuse and torturing of largely innocent civilians by the Nigerian military.

To avoid unexpected risks, we’ve taken a robust approach in risk assessments, trying to think of every possible eventuality and plan, and providing oversights into every element of the action we’re going to take. For instance, whether you go into that village, meet that person, by yourself, or down that specific alley. Things could be dangerous, and we need to try our best to reduce the risk of unexpected changes.

What skillset do you need to become a successful journalist?

The first and most important thing is to have a natural curiosity and an interest in people, which is often more important than your interest in facts. The better story is about who is behind the facts, and if you have an interest in people, they are going to be more willing to open up to you.

The second thing is to have an open mind. Having a fixed view of what reality looks like closes many opportunities. You need to be prepared to ask stupid questions, starting with the most basic questions “Who, Where, and Why”. It’s best to have a healthy cynicism that motivates you to ask questions so you develop a radar that detects things that are less likely to represent the truth.

Along your journalist journey, you will eventually be trained through working with excellent people who ask you questions and push you to take further steps so that you take primary reporting initiatives instead of just regurgitating secondary news.

You just need to be aware that you don’t have to be born to be a journalist, but that everyone can be committed to learning this skill set along the way.

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