Located less than two hours south of Florida and within a stone’s throw of Cuba, Jamaica has often been overshadowed by its headline-grabbing neighbors. Yet, while it has been branded as a place with no problems, the island has a deeply partisan political culture, a public sector known to be corrupt (with a recent series in the newspaper running a monthlong commentary on the matter) and a host of societal problems that go largely unnoticed.
Jamaica enjoys one of the world’s safest media environments, but lacks a robust press to take advantage of it. To address this, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Integrity Action and Global Reporters for the Caribbean took 27 individuals from communities around Jamaica with no formal training in journalism and gave them the hard skills and guidance to cover the stories legacy media misses.
Journalist Kate Chappell was appointed the program’s coordinator and spoke about the challenges of orchestrating multiple investigative stories simultaneously, particularly when none of the reporters have done it before.
Chappell said participants chose their stories at the outset. They were instructed to come in with ideas from where they lived, and stories were chosen based on their achievability.
The participants underwent an intensive weekend-long training and were then placed with a mentor to work with for the next three months to pull together a complete story.
The pilot program was a success: it produced 10 stories published across television, radio and print. One story revolved around the lack of suitable police training for dealing with domestic violence; another around the state of disrepair of rural roads (which residents blame for hindering a 12-year-old’s treatment after a fatal asthma attack). Others were about, the ramifications of dredging the capital’s harbor on local fishermen and how a culture of fear which prevents some residents of coastal city Montego Bay from reporting criminal activity.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” said Chappell. “But also the most rewarding.”
One thing Chappell said she’d re-evaluate is how much they’d ask of trainees, given the length of the time.
“Unless you’ve done it, you don’t know how much effort it takes,” said Chappell. “You have to be extremely diligent — you can’t just call once if you don’t get an answer, you have to be on the phone three times a day ... it’s a full-time job.”
Participants, who ranged in age from their 20s to 40s, were balancing the rigors of the program and story production with their normal lives. Some inevitably struggled, and some stories were carried by one or two particularly dedicated team members. Chappell indicated this would have to change if the program was relaunched.
“[Participants] have their day jobs, they have their families, they’re just trying to get by. I don’t think we realized how unrealistic we were being.”
Nonetheless, the intensity of the work didn’t diminish participants’ ultimate enthusiasm for its results, shown by the turnout at the program’s closing ceremony.
“We expected 80 people to come,” said Chappell. “Two hundred showed up.”
Investing in the Fourth Estate
The stories unearthed by eager community members in just three months suggest that investigative journalism has a place in Jamaica. Still, Chappell sees significant obstacles to fostering a culture willing to fund the costs of investigative reporting.
“It’s a lack of money, lack of resources,” said Chappell. “And there’s a general lack of understanding of the importance of it.”
Jamaica has fallen victim to a global industry trend — investigative journalism is a pricey venture in a business that’s eager to be cutting costs and is often one of the first things on the chopping block.
While that makes sense financially, it shortchanges not only journalists, but the societies they work for.
“The stories that take the most amount of effort — the ones that exact discourse and change, expose corruption — take a long time,” said Chappell. “It takes time to hold people to account.”
Farahnaz Mohammed is a journalist and former Knight-VICE fellow.
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr John Lester.