Invitation to lecture

Sheila Coronel Lecture on Data Journalism and Human Rights Reporting

The 17th February lecture was a student initiative of the Masters of Investigative Journalism Programme (MIJ) attended by 40+ students and faculty from the Department of Journalism, Media and Communication (JMG) and The Master's Programme in Political Communication (PolCom).

Sheila Coronel is a veteran journalist who started in the Philippine underground press under the heavy censorship of the Marcos regime in the 1980's. Her investigative work as co-founder of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) led to the impeachment populist President Estrada. Coronel was former chair of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and is currently director of Columbia University’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism. Coronel took lecture attendees behind the scenes, leading them through each step of her investigative process.

Coronel’s Atlantic article, The Uncounted Dead of Duterte’s Drug War, combines data, document driven, and field reporting to calculate an accurate number of lives lost from extrajudicial killings. The data she compiled with the Stabile Center combined with analysis from the Human Rights Data Analysis Group showed that the Philippine police may have reported three times less than the actual number of deaths under Duterte’s “war on drugs.”

Data Journalism Origins

Masters of Investigative Journalism Programme students awaited a presentation on database merging methods and Python scripts, having just completed the Data Journalism and Visualisation section of their course. Coronel began instead with a slide of a ledger from the 19th century American South, with yellow faded paper and had scripted ink, citing the research and work of pioneer investigative journalist, Ida B. Wells.

Wells, a Black woman born into slavery in 1862, used records and quantitative work to examine the reasons for the pervasive lynching of Black men and produce an accurate count of deaths by lynching. Wells cross referenced multiple data sources of lynching records to compile and tabulate reasons recorded for lynchings in the years 1896, 1898, 1899, and 1900.

Wells’ article uncovered that lynchings occurred not just for murder or sexual violence crimes (the “accepted” reason at that time) but for many other alleged offences such as mistaken identity, theft, elopement and even “no offence.” Wells’ journalistic work was essential in the development of human rights protection half a century before the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

Breaking Down The Process 

Unlike Sweden, which holds the world’s oldest FOI law (Freedom of the Press Act of 1766) and offers easy access to an abundance of data through organisations such as SCB (Statistikmyndigheten), the Philippine Freedom of Information Order for government agencies to disclose their records to the public was established in just 2016, though records are still difficult to obtain.

Coronel used 23 different sources of data to tabulate deaths from extrajudicial killings, many of which were handwritten on sheets of paper and not digitally compiled into any database. Data sources included police reports, photographers’ metadata, hospital records, and church records such as payments for burials. The lecture attendees squinted their eyes as Coronel flips to a slide of a lined notebook sheet, a handwritten list of casualties noted in a Manila parish. After doing her own count from multiple sources, Coronel then collaborated with statistician Patrick Ball, who used machine learning to create a probability model to estimate the number of unrecorded drug linked deaths. The police reported a count of 965, the Stabile Center count showed that police sources combined totaled 1,794, while all sources combined totaled 2,320. The statistical model count totalled 2,841 deaths.

Coronel and her team focused their field reporting in four communities, using police spot reports to map sites of killings. She walked the sites and knocked on doors, meeting with families who showed her death certificates of their children, parents, siblings, and friends. Coronel shared a slide image of a makeshift altar in a humble home, where a deceased man’s parents placed empty bottles of his favourite beer to prop up his photo beside a half burned candle. Coronel became teary eyed, her voice shaking slightly.

Human Rights Reporting

“As a student journalist with experience working in human rights, it’s easy to be overwhelmed with these heavy topics and to feel unable to help people in need. I was inspired to see how Shiela felt emotional for the people who are at the heart of her work, but simultaneously strong, steady and with so much clarity about her process,” commented MIJ student, Erika di Benedetto from Sicily, who has worked as a human rights photographer prior to enrolling in the MIJ program.

“If Ida B. Wells can do it, you can do it,” claimed Coronel, encouraging students to have confidence in their abilities to do great journalism without being overwhelmed by the multitude of tools available today. Coronel herself began as a pre-internet reporter, silkscreening broadsides for the underground press.

Filipino MIJ student Wanna Ver Johansson found Sheila’s work in the Washington Post and initiated the lecture in collaboration with journalists and MIJ students Atmi Pertiwi from Indonesia and Justin Yarga from Burkina Faso. “Her work inspired me to enrol in the Masters of Investigative Journalism Programme at Gothenburg University, which then offered me the venue from which I could reach out to such a prolific journalist and learn directly from her.” Coronel’s work in examining the rise of populist leaders in history and their legacy today is especially relevant in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

This lecture was made possible through mentorship from Brigitte Alfter and Ulla Saterie. Other guest lectures on investigative journalism organised by MIJ students were Juliana Ruhfus from Al Jazeera, Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier, initiators of the Panama Papers, and Harald Schumann from Investigate Europe.


By Leonardo Tardei and Wanna Ver Johansson