Ruona Meyer describes her drive to produce award-winning journalism as “just needing to know”. In 2013, she noticed that all Nigerian embassies abroad were allocated a budget for back-up electricity generation, even in countries not affected by disruptions in electricity supply. She just needed to know where the money for something they didn’t even need was being spent. This was her first ever data story published by Premium Times, and it won both Ruona and her colleague, Ini Ekott, the Wole Soyinka Prize for Investigative Journalism in 2013.
Ruona is a recipient of several awards in journalism, among her awards is the Reuters’ Niall Fitzgerald Prize for Young African Journalists . Sweet Sweet Codeine, an investigation for the BBC published in April 2018, was awarded the One World Media TV Documentary Award in June 2019. In September 2019, Sweet Sweet Codeine also bagged an Emmy nomination for the BBC World Service and Nigeria.
Last month we interviewed Ruona to understand what it takes to win investigative journalism awards, what she has learned along her journey, and what others can learn from her.
Why is data important in your story telling?
Ruona describes data as the armour of her storytelling. “Big or small; data is the evidence that defends the truth in your story.” Ruona gave an example of how using spatial data even gave her the ability to zoom in on Google Maps and identify the locations of illegal sand mining which you would struggle to do in person. Data is a trustworthy source and doesn’t put you at risk, especially as a female journalist.
“Big or small; data is the evidence that defends the truth in your story.”
Has it been difficult to find data in Africa?
“It’s not enough to say that there’s no data in Africa. Don’t stop there. You must find and create data… The excuse that Africa doesn't have data, it doesn't hold weight any more. That's not going to work. You know, I need our colleagues to understand that one doesn't work anymore. That's wrong. You don't go. You can't be saying that in 2022.”
“It’s not enough to say that there’s no data in Africa. Don’t stop there. You must find and create data."
What do you mean by “small data”?
“It's about creating the supplementary data that supports your static data. That's one thing we have to be careful about as African journalists, you are never going to get all the data. Never. You are never going to get it in the form you want. You have to then think of the other ways you can corroborate it and start those other ways in a bank of some sort.”
"...you are never going to get all the data. Never."
How do you create data visualisations?
Data stories and investigative journalism takes time. This is sometimes a luxury in newsrooms, but it is important to create the time and invest in journalists. Ruona has taught herself to use the data visualisation tools, but it took her time. She says, “I want journalists to know that I’m not the brightest crayon in the box…” but that she has been able to learn and figure out how to do many things.
Ruona’s best data stories and how she did them
This investigation started with an assessment of embassy budgets. She pulled together a spreadsheet containing the location of each foreign mission, the electricity charges budget, fuel costs budget and maintenance cost budgets in Naira. The full data set can be found here. She then analysed the data, pulled out the strongest culprits, and her colleague, Ini Ekott, went to the embassies and put the questions to them. She used Tableau to embed searchable charts in the story.
In this story, Ruona and Billy Ntaote investigated how a cannabis company in Lesotho was hoarding water from the wider community, forcing them to risk mountainous terrain and quality of life, while cannabis plants got more water than a human per day. The situation evolved over time, with many developments and reports along the way. To present this data, she made this timeline using Knightlab’s popular Timeline.js tool and embedded it in the story.
As an editor for this article published by ZAM, Ruona supported Nazlee Arbee in the research and writing process. The article features the experience of several South Africans who applied for the Covid Relief grant and who were rejected or successful. The numbers of people rejected were in the thousands and it was found that 85% actually did qualify for the grant, so they set about gathering qualitative data to more descriptively explain the consequences of the problem. Arbee interviewed 30 South Africans, and summarised the findings in the article. A pie chart was also included to show what proportion of the COVID relief budget from IMF was distributed to families who applied for the grant, spent on other programmes, or under investigation for corruption.
This is the one in a series of interviews with some inspiring professionals in data journalism. To learn about how they do what they do, subscribe to our newsletter for more.