Carolyn Thompson was working at a consulting firm in Canada, but she soon realized she wasn’t passionate about her work, and she decided to look for something new. In 2009, she was selected for a journalism internship in South Africa – and her world changed forever.
“I went to South Africa for six weeks and worked with a newspaper. I was really lucky to be paired with this amazing feature editor who guided me through journalism,” she says. “That was my first experience with journalism, ever.”
When the internship was over, Thompson returned to Canada, where she pursued a master’s degree in journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa. During the program, she returned to Africa and interned in Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo through the Rwanda Initiative, a partnership between the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton and its counterpart at the National University of Rwanda. The program, which began in 2006 and has since ended, was a teaching and training partnership that offered numerous exchange opportunities for students and faculty.
After the training was over, Thompson returned to Canada to work for a newspaper, but soon decided to travel to South Sudan to work as a trainer for a similar initiative, where she could dedicate a quarter of her time to freelancing. However, a media crackdown in the country led her to relocate to neighboring Kenya, where she has been working since 2017.
Thompson works as a data journalism freelancer, reporting primarily on politics, human rights and migration. Her work has been featured in CBC, Al Jazeera, The Washington Post and more. Her 2019 immersive storytelling project, Controlling the Ebola outbreak, walks readers through the complexity of the Ebola outbreak, prompting them to make choices based on the different paths they choose to take.
This year, Thompson was selected for a three-month News Corp Media Fellowship from the International Center for Journalists. We caught up with her while she spent a few days in D.C. for a training session before heading to New York to work with the The Wall Street Journal's media science lab.
Thompson spoke to IJNet about her work, how she pulls of such large data projects and advice she has for young journalists.
IJNet: Was it difficult to transition from working in Canada to working in East Africa?
Thompson: I think it’s always difficult transitioning to a new reporting environment, especially when you’re transitioning to a place where you don’t speak the language and you don’t have the context that journalists from that region do. It’s definitely really challenging.
Initially, I was working as a trainer and just freelancing a little on the side, so I had a lot of contacts who were from the region and were very experienced who I could work with. Now, most of the projects that I do are in collaboration, which, for me, is a much more effective way to make sure I’m taking into account the things that I don’t know and providing value because I do data journalism.
So many of the projects that we do are bigger data journalism projects and I work providing the data side. I collaborate with Kenyan journalists or Sudanese journalists and try to ensure that we work together to have a richer reporting experience.
How did you get started doing data journalism?
Before I became a journalist, I was doing a financial job for a consulting firm. Through that I learned a little bit of accounting, and I always actually liked numbers and liked math when I was in school. When I was doing my master’s, there was a research and reporting methods course taught by some really incredible Canadian investigative journalists, and one of the units they taught was about data. I just realized it was something that I’m really interested in because I really like reporting that’s evidence-based, that’s more concrete and in-depth, and provides a lot of nuance.
How do you access datasets that you need?
In the region that I work in, particularly South Sudan, there’s a lot of data, but there are challenges because it’s not always updated, might not be accurate or might not be accessible to a journalist. We rely a lot on international agencies that collect it –– UN agencies or NGOs that are gathering data on specific issues –– but we also do a lot of self-collection of data.
For one story, we used a mobile phone survey to gather data from people across the country. We also use things like satellite imagery to try to assess situations on the ground, and we’ll create datasets using the imagery that we have.
I’ve used some government datasets. For example, the government, in collaboration with a UN institution, had a dataset of food prices. We were able to do a calculation about how much food prices were increasing based on that data.
The biggest challenge is figuring out how to be transparent about where the data is from, and what it actually shows or doesn’t, and also how to assess whether or not the data is credible enough to be used. Sometimes we have this tendency to think that numbers are just all-knowing and perfect, and actually there are a lot of flaws in the way that they’re gathered, or what they actually represent.
What was the inspiration for making the immersive storytelling game, Controlling the Ebola outbreak?
Ebola is a really difficult topic to cover because there’s a lot of complexity to it. There are a lot of factors – political factors, social factors, medical factors – that make it really, really complex. It’s a big, scary issue, but it’s very real and it affects so many people. And there’s a lot of disinformation about that topic.
We had been thinking a lot about how we could use data to tell stories about Ebola, so, it was in collaboration with some other journalists that helped me brainstorm, and then [I created it] on a team with Kenyan journalists and a Congolese journalist.
The “choose your own adventure” style serves very well because it allows people to engage with the topics they’re most interested in. We ended up splitting it between sections — one for response and one for victims — which allows you to see it from the perspective of the side that is most appealing to you.
What advice would you give to aspiring journalists?
The way to succeed, particularly as a freelancer, is often trying to find new ways to tell stories and unique ways to think about what your reporting is meant to do. Find a niche or an area of interest that you can focus on that’s different. For me, data journalism has been a way to provide value that’s different than what most people in the region are producing, and it means that I’m able to find stories that other people aren’t necessarily reporting on, or think about stories in a different way because I have a different research method at my disposal.
Sometimes people are a bit pessimistic about the industry, and I don’t believe in that. There are so many ways to tell really interesting, innovative stories.
Main image is a screenshot of Thompson's project Controlling the Ebola outbreak.