By Elle Ayres, WiJ intern
Our sold-out How to Break a Big Story event saw one of WiJ’s most impressive panels to date. Carole Cadwalladr, who investigated the Cambridge Analytica scandal; Amelia Gentleman, who brought the Windrush calamity to the forefront of the media and Madison Marriage, who uncovered the misogynistic treatment of hostesses at the Presidents Club dinner, were joined by Sophie Barnes; whose relentless reporting helped uncover the realities of the Grenfell Tower disaster and Abbie Fielding-Smith, who brought to light how private firms were at the heart of US drone warfare in the middle east. Eleanor Mills, WiJ Chair, Editor of the Sunday Times Magazine and Editorial Director of the Sunday Times chaired the panel.
Carole Cadwalladr was keen to emphasise that “if you can meet for a coffee instead of just having a phone call, make sure you do.” Genuine interaction and engagement is crucial; “good stories always come from people” and “adding a face to a story helps it to punch through”. There had been multiple articles touching on the different aspects of the CA scandal but they had not received much coverage or attention in mainstream media. Carole’s approach in the Guardian made sure it could not be ignored. She also stated, to the agreement of the rest of the panel, that – contrary to popular belief – “it’s not about being first, but being best. But, obviously being first helps!”
In a similar vein, fellow Guardian reporter Amelia Gentleman emphasised that “if you have time to do random things it can end up being helpful for the future.” She noted that the beginnings of her Windrush reporting were born out of a cancelled meeting that gave her a free afternoon to go and speak to a contact at a local charity who had been in touch about immigration and deportation issues. “It helps to be obsessive. If you feel obsessively uneasy about a story you will maintain momentum with it,” she asserted, with Eleanor Mills seconding the importance of “having confidence that if you think it is a startling injustice, others will too.”
“Keep your eyes and ears open, talk to everyone,” was the key message that the FT’s Madison Marriage communicated, a sentiment that Eleanor supported: “stories come from everywhere, people undervalue that as currency.” Marriage spoke candidly about going undercover as a hostess at the Presidents Club men-only dinner, from her fake CV and intense one-hour interview using a different name, to colleagues at the FT taking headshots to submit in her job application. Her insight into the intimidating backlash her piece received and how her security was frequently a worry shocked the audience and her account of the experience at the WIJ event was featured in the PressGazette.
All the panellists discussed the harassment and online trolling they had received as a result of their journalism and how at times it is best to ignore your social feeds and just focus on your work. Carole, after talking about how an abusive video that surfaced on Twitter (shortly after she broke the Cambridge Analytica story) took days to be taken down, was quick to assert that “Twitter is a private company, marketed as a public sphere.”
Abbie Fielding-Smith, from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, surprised everybody by championing cold-emailing as a sometimes highly effective technique. “Cold emailing can actually lead somewhere, there’s this prevailing scepticism to think it will never work, but it’s never a waste of time. People want to tell their stories, exciting stories, that no one has heard about.”
The sold-out event also included a Q&A during which one audience member asked how to avoid arousing suspicion when cold-emailing, especially to large corporations. Abigail replied that “you have to tell them a bit but keep it vague and unthreatening, specific enough to give an idea but not to trigger alarm bells.” She added: “I once had my email forwarded upwards and that did end up killing that angle on the story, you have to coax them and reassure that you’re interested in the story, not with getting anybody in trouble. You want to work with them.”
“Carry on and just do it” was the prevailing piece of advice that Inside Housing’s Sophie Barnes provided. She noted how easy it is to doubt yourself (especially as a woman) in the industry but that ultimately you have to maintain belief in what you’re doing. The panel nodded in agreement, without this your story will never get published.
One thing all of these women said was that finding the right person to pitch to was crucial. The majority of the time the first editor you approach won’t be the one who runs it and your confidence in the importance of your story will ultimately be the thing that sells it. The true resonance of the discussion was that breaking a big story is all about listening to people and having faith that if you think their story is interesting, then others will want to read about it.
As always, we thank Cision UK and AB Ports for their continued support of our events scheme and Wiggin LLP for allowing us to use their fantastic events space.
Special thanks to Donna Ferguson, freelance journalist and WIJ events team member who came up with the event idea and organised the brilliant panel.