GINGER GORMAN: ‘Investigative journalism is crucial to society’

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Ginger Gorman is an award winning print and radio journalist based in the Australian Capital Territory. During her media career Ginger has worked for ABC Local Radio, ABC Emergency, Triple J, Radio Netherlands Worldwide and Fairfax Community Newspapers. Her freelance work has been published in print and online by, The Guardian, The Age, Daily Life, Mamamia and Her Canberra.

Let’s start from the beginning – when did you first become interested in a career in journalism?

In May 1992 there was a coup in Thailand. The military cracked down on protestors and more than 50 people died. That’s an official number, so it was likely many more. Others disappeared and were reportedly tortured. I was 16 at the time and my family had newly arrived in Bangkok so that my late Dad could take up an Australian diplomatic posting there. I’ll never forget the newspapers arriving with column inches of blank space all over the front pages; they had been censored. It’s hard to describe how scary it is not to have access to news. It was then I understood the value of the information and the free press’ role in democracy.

 You spent many years working in radio before building a print portfolio as a freelance journalist – is there a medium you prefer?

 Actually I started in print journalism on a tiny little paper called the Werribee Banner in Melbourne’s outskirts. Sadly the publication no longer exists but it was operational from 1838 right up until 2010. The paper had a grand history and the locals trusted us. Especially after Port Phillip Prison opened, we broke some big stories that ended up being followed up by The Age and the ABC.

There’s nothing like working at a small regional paper in terms of rapidly honing your journalism skills. And really, getting those few important years of boots-on-the-ground reporting across every imaginable subject matter is what got me into the ABC.

I love print journalism because you can really craft a story. Making people “heard” in my articles is crucial. Sometimes I’ll write and rewrite sentences again and again until the subject’s voice really rings out. They must feel represented.

Radio has a different kind of charm. With radio, you can really build images with sound in the mind of the listener. It’s a creative process for you as a reporter, and for them as a consumer. And it’s very domestic – you are in people’s cars and kitchens with them.

You are on Patreon – a platform which other content creators and producers are also starting to turn to – would you recommend it to others? 

 Yes, I’d recommend it for sure – just maybe not for the reasons you might imagine.

The so-called rivers of gold from classified advertising are drying up and this means the media industry is undergoing huge disruption. This is the reason many journalists and photojournalists – including me – have been made redundant (and sadly, there will be more to come).

It’s not a time to be idle. If we want quality journalism to survive, we need to experiment and find new ways of funding our reporting. That’s why I jumped onto Patreon. As an experiment!

What’s eventuated is a “team” of more than 40 people who microfund my work. They just give a few dollars each month. More than the money, I just love having a team of folk barracking for me. Freelancing can be lonely and this way, on a bad day, I know I’m not alone. This core group of people believe in my work and it helps me keep going.

If we want quality journalism to survive, we need to experiment and find new ways of funding our reporting.

With the kind of reporting you do, you can spend months even years working on a project – how do you decide which stories to devote your time to?

If you think about the current media environment, there’s a perfect storm: tighter budgets, less journalists on the ground coupled with the pressure of the 24-hour news cycle. That’s not say there aren’t fabulous journalists out there – there certainly are.

However overall, we’re seeing an increase in low quality “churnalism” and plagiarism. After 17 years as a journalist, the truth is that I’m so bored with this reality. I take a totally different approach to storytelling. In my work I always ask two questions: How do we treat each other? How can society be fairer?

I’m interested in untold stories and unheard voices. To an outsider, finding a story like this might seem like finding a needle in a haystack. But from where I’m sitting the “needles” shine very brightly indeed. You could say that my stories almost choose me.

You describe yourself as the investigative journalist with heart – do you think it’s important for freelance writers to have a specific personal brand/niche?

 I never set out to be a social justice journalist as a branding exercise. Actually it was a friend in the media who labelled my work “investigative journalism with heart.” I loved that description because it so accurately describes what I do; I’ve developed specific methods to collaborate with interviewees who have suffered trauma and tell their stories in an ethical way. So with my friend’s permission, I started publicly using the phrase. It’s helpful – people seem to understand what it means.

It was only recently, though, Nine News’ political editor Chris Uhlmann said to me as a passing comment: “You’ve single-handedly invented your own type of journalism.”

Apart from blushing, the comment really stopped me in my tracks. (You know when another person says something and you’ve never looked at it quite like that before?!)

Having said that, I’m not naïve about branding. As a freelancer, in any field, you need a strong and unique “voice.” In part this involves having a fervent online presence and building a following. That’s inescapable.

As a writer, the end game is that you want editors to publish your work and you want the public to engage with it. The pen is surely mightier than the sword – but only if someone reads what you’ve written.

As a freelancer, in any field, you need a strong and unique “voice.” In part this involves having a fervent online presence and building a following.

What do you think are the key qualities required to be a good investigative reporter?

 You need to have a personality that is both yin and yang. For example, you need to be extremely tough when you are dealing with a bureaucracy that’s bullshitting you or trying to keep crucial information from you. Don’t back down.

But then simultaneously you may also need to be deeply compassionate with interviewees who’ve suffered trauma. You must never take them or their trust in you for granted.

You may need to concurrently hold many pieces of conflicting information in your mind and not jump to conclusions too soon. Think critically and think hard. Be fair and accurate.

You need to be good at talking with strangers. But you must also learn to listen acutely. People never say what you expect.

You’ll need to take great risks in your work, but then patience is important too. Do all the necessary background reading and reserach. You must be careful to cross the Ts and dot the Is.

In essence: Investigative journalism is complex work and it takes a long time. But it’s crucial to society.

I’m interested in untold stories and unheard voices

You’ve reported on very dark subject matter (including cyberbullying and child abuse) which must be hard to let go of, how do you practise self-care?

Last year, I interviewed a women with an intellectual disability who had been abused by six different perpetrators in her lifetime. Afterwards I found myself shaking and crying. Despite Jane’s unbelievable resilience and courage, I just wasn’t prepared for the unrelenting horror of her story.

At around the same time, another woman I interviewed remained in constant danger from her perpetrator. Because of this, I took extreme care to obscure her identity in the article. However, this didn’t stop me waking up at 2 am and worrying that something I’d written would identify her. Would she be hurt or even killed because of me?

Through the Dart Centre (Asia Pacific) for Journalism and Trauma, I was gratefully given an amazing peer support person – ABC journalist Karen Percy.

Karen is thoughtful. She’ll occasionally send a short text to check in with me. Whenever I call to debrief, she listens. As an experienced journalist who has also covered traumatic issues, Karen offers a sympathetic and knowledgeable ear. And somehow it really helps me face the next day of reporting.

In your opinion, what should journalists and news organisations be doing to stop the seemingly endless cycle of borrowing/stealing other people’s stories and hard work simply for the sake of having content?

They need to be creative and find other ways to fund journalism (see above answer about Patreon). And for pity’s sake start taking risks again. Advice to editors: See that young journalist over there who wants to cover a story no one else is covering? Tell that budding journo: “YES YOU CAN!”

You are writing a book on cyber hate for Hardie Grant – in terms of your writing process, are you approaching it as you would a piece of reporting or are you tackling it differently?

 Yes I am and I’m thrilled to bits! In terms of writing process, I’m only just starting out with my research and interviewing. Like any non-fiction writing project, interviewees always give you information and anecdotes you aren’t expecting. There’s a surprise around every corner. In some ways, it’s just like the journalism I’ve always been doing and I’m using the same skills.

In other ways though, writing long form poses a structural challenge I’ve never faced before. I’m trying to treat it like eating an entire chocolate cake: just one little piece at a time.

It’s a sad truth that women with an opinion (all of us) often face trolling online? What have you found to be the best way to deal with Twitter eggs?

 Well, I’m writing a book about cyberhate because there’s so much to say. Internet has many dark crevices. So this short question actually has a long answer.

In the short term though, maybe it’s best to answer it with another question. Why is it up to women – the victims of so much online hate and harassment – to keep themselves safe online?

Just imagine for a moment that we expected victims of offline violence, like domestic abuse, to be solely responsible for keeping themselves safe. That’s insane.

As I said in my TEDx talk last year: “If I choose to walk down to the local mall right now, the likelihood is that I’ll do this safely. This is because most of us follow the laws and understand violence against others is unacceptable.”

Cyberhate and cyberviolence is no different. Societal norms must apply online just as they do offline.

So although I have written a list of tips to help keep people safe online, there’s a huge caveat that goes with them. Every one of us is responsible for keeping people safe online; it shouldn’t be left up to cyberhate targets.

You can follow Ginger Gorman on Facebook and Twitter. You can also visit her website, support her Patreon and check out her company, Media Bootcamp

Image credit: Hilary Wardhaugh


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