Paulette Desormeaux on Investigative Journalism in Chile

In this interview, we speak to Award Winning Investigative Journalist and Hamburg alumna Paulette (2008-2010) about her career in Investigative Journalism in Latin America and how investigative news can stay relevant in the age of clickbait journalism and fake news.

2020.10.12 | Sabeen Jamil

Paulette Desormeaux is an Award Winning Investigative Journalist and Hamburg alumna.

In 2008, Paulette Desormeaux, who is from Chile, began her Mundus journey in Aarhus. Back then, she did not yet know how collaborative journalism worked or how she could use investigative journalism to her country's advantage but that was about to change. 12 years later, she has built a career in transnational collaborative investigative journalism and has bagged an award for her work. She has formed a network of journalists called Red de Periodistas Chile which is working to change the way journalism is practiced in Chile. She is also an active participant at SembraMedia which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing the diversity of voices in Spanish by helping digital media entrepreneurs become more sustainable and independent. Not only that, Paulette has cracked the code for practicing investigative journalism in Chile which is fit to Chile's unique socio-cultural environment and politics and she has introduced creative methods for transferring this knowledge to journalism students at university.

Mundus Journalism: You have successfully developed a career in practicing and teaching Investigative Journalism. Can you take us through the journey behind your professional development? How did your studies in Aarhus and Hamburg help in your career?

Paulette: Before joining the Mundus program, I did an internship on a television show in my home country Chile. In this television show, they uncovered crime and corruption scandals. During my internship, I had to do several things including undercover reporting. That was my first contact with Investigative Journalism.  After my internship finished, I continued working for the television show. At the same time, I also started working as a teaching assistant at several universities. Three years later, I applied for the Erasmus Mundus programme and, lucky for me, I got accepted with a stipend. This was 11 years ago.

When I look back, I realise that the Mundus Journalism program changed my life in so many ways. For example, I did my specialisation in Hamburg. There, I had the freedom to focus on research which interested me. So, I decided to study the factors influencing journalistic reporting and the representation of indigenous communities in Chile. While writing my thesis, I realised how important it was to change the way we were producing news in Chile. That realisation encouraged me a lot later on in my career to change the production processes at my news organization.

After graduation, I moved back to Chile and joined the Centre of Investigative Journalism which is the only non-profit media organisation in Chile. My first assignment was to investigate a massive fraud in a retail business where pension funds had invested enormous amounts of money. I had never reported on anything related to the stock market nor was it a part of my specialisation. But I had picked up skills of researching with open sources during my studies. I used those skills to get the necessary information for my new assignment. I worked on that project for about four months and published a series of investigative stories which won a Financial Journalism Award. That encouraged me to take on further assignments.

I also thought that my knowledge and experience of using open sources and lines of questioning in that project, should be shared with budding journalists. So I offered a course on Investigative Journalism at a university I had worked with. I framed my course as a practical workshop with experiential learning exercises. In 2013, I started with four students. Now I have 70 students and 5 professors teaching this course. In their assignments, my students have made groundbreaking reports. They have uncovered military abuse and they have reported on women with mental issues being sterilised in a public university.

Along with teaching, I also work as a freelancer on a collaborative platform where I write investigative stories related to health.

MJ: What drives your career in academia? I was always interested in sharing what I have learned with the new generations. I have been exploring new ways of doing journalism and then sharing that at university through new courses. I also wanted to teach because I had a methodology that could empower many other journalists and revolutionise newsrooms. I really want to change how journalism is practiced in Chile. That is why, with some colleagues I also created a network of journalists called Red de Periodistas Chile. We have been around for seven years. We offer journalists training with a focus on Freedom of Information, data, ethical discussions etc.

MJ: What are the challenges to journalism in Chile? What changes would you like to bring to the field?

Paulette: Chile is a country with a history of not being too critical about power. Journalists are not killed here nor do we have that kind of restrictions that other Latin American countries have. There is also freedom of expression but the real challenge is that for decades we have had no place to express it. We have a commercialised media system and for many years we had a very high concentration of ownership in the media. Now new media are emerging offering spaces for new or counter discourses.

But there is still a long way to go. Also, there is a gap in knowledge about how journalists can use open sources to do independent top-notch investigative stories. My dream is that every reporter in Chile will know how to use the Freedom of Information Act. I also want every journalist in Chile to have knowledge of new tools like using spreadsheets to find meaningful stories hidden behind data. We also need to change the paradigm of competition to one of collaboration. I want journalists to understand how important collaboration is. The problems we are reporting on do not end on our geographical borders anymore- Covid-19, Migration, economy, climate change. These are cross-border problems now. It is important for journalists to collaborate and tell these complex stories from local perspectives which are simple to understand by the audiences. 

MJ: With the growth of digital technologies and increase in click bait news, is Investigative Journalism still relevant? What are the challenges?

Paulette: Investigative Journalism is more important than ever. There is so much information online. It is easy to manipulate audiences with viral fake news. We need journalists that can fact check such content and also explain what is really happening. The way we understand Investigative Journalism should also open up. We think that it is only about pointing out failures or corruption. But If we link Investigative Journalism to Solution Journalism, the outcome of that is really powerful and relevant. We have read too many investigative pieces about things that don't work. So much so that there is a kind of an Investigative Journalism fatigue. But, if we give solutions to audiences and incorporate narratives and methodologies from all around the world while explaining consequences I think Investigative Journalism will become more relevant.

Another challenge that journalists need to overcome is to make Investigative Journalism more relevant to digital audiences and to adapt to the platforms where people are informing themselves. Investigative Journalism needs to be on social networks and it should be presented in digital storytelling strategies. It needs to be brief and clear and written in an exciting manner.

MJ: What are your favorite investigative journalism tools and resources?

Paulette: There are many. To teach, the Handbook of Investigative Journalism by UNESCO . Zoom for transnational projects. Signal to communicate in a safe way. Investigative Dashboard to find offshore corporations. Tableau for data visualization. Slack and Trello when we are a bigger team and we have too many tasks. Google drive is also handy to organize work in a collaborative way.

Thank you, Paulette, we wish you every success with your future endeavours!

Interested in joining our next cohort of Mundusians? Applications open again on the 1st of November.

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Tags: Investigative Journalism, Solutions Journalism, teaching, award-winning journalist, Hamburg