From the Daily Dispatch: Reporting investigative journalism online

Jan Hennop is online news editor at Daily Dispatch, a South African news organisation specialising in online investigative journalism. This piece on the site’s investigation to see if government promises to improve schools in rural South Africa had been kept first appeared on Poynter Online and is reproduced here with permission.

Read’s Q&A with the Daily Dispatch’s online team at this link.

Towards the end of 2009, a team of four young Daily Dispatch reporters – two print reporters, a photographer and a videographer – travelled deep into rural South Africa to do an investigative project looking at education.

They were following up on a promise made by the country’s education minister Naledi Pandor after a visit a year before to the Mbizana district, in the rolling green hills of the Eastern Cape province, not far from where former president Nelson Mandela was born.

Pandor’s visit was prompted by the fact that the Mbizana district represented the worst 12th grade (commonly referred to as ‘Matric’) results nationwide in South Africa in 2008.

Here, only 29.3 per cent of all pupils passed high school that year. And even if they did, their marks were so low, the standard of their education so poor, that very few if any, stood a chance of entering college or a university.

“Never again” would this failure be allowed to happen again, Minister Pandor promised during her visit.

A year later, as the Class of 2009 were sitting down to write their final exams, a Dispatch team once again visited the area to see if the minister’s promise was kept.

For two weeks, our team lived with pupils and visited schools, speaking to principals, teachers, pupils and parents.

Although there were some glimmers of hope, our team found that rural education in South Africa remains in deep crisis.

A failure to live up to promises continued to lead to the failed futures of a generation of poor, rural and mainly black South African children.

We discovered horrific conditions in the classroom – as well as at home.

In some schools, up to 120 kids were crammed into one class – and there were in Grade 12 some students as old as 25, some with children of their own – adding a different social dynamic to schooling.

Many of these “older” pupils, like Nomalanga Qadi, are not only trying to get through school: she’s also raising a baby of her own, as well as children belonging to relatives. She does not have a job and like millions of other South Africans, depends on a government hand-out to keep her alive.

Our investigation looked at three schools: one which was doing relatively well under the circumstances; another where the situation was hovering on the abyss; and a third, where education has turned into an absolute disaster.

What our team found was that the realities facing these schools was an echo of those facing thousands of other schools in rural South Africa.

And that rural education in South Africa needs urgent intervention.

We hope our investigation will help to focus government’s attention on this crisis.

At the same time, we wanted to present our work in a creative and interesting way, especially online.

So how did we do it?

Landing page: DispatchOnline’s senior graphic artist Rudi Louw used Flash animation on our landing page to scroll a small introduction in the left hand corner. We have also built in a Flash mouse-over effect which gives a small introduction of the situation at each school we looked at.

Blogs: As per our other online investigations, we used WordPress as our blogging platform. We embedded both galleries as well as video plug-ins to help us enhance our story. Our team in the field shot the pics and video and edited it offline.

Since our connection speeds in rural areas in SA are either non-existent or very slow (256 kbps), our online postings were done after the team returned from the field, which did somewhat slow down our production time.

Video: For the first time we really pursued a television-reporting-style approach to the subject, with our young reporter Asa Sokopo interviewing her subjects. The video editing process would start in the field by the DispatchOnline’s videographer Sino Majangaza.

Flipbook for WordPress: One of the coolest and latest additions to our online arsenal is the use of a flipbook plugin, which allowed us to tell pupils’ story in a very unique and special way.

We are particularly proud of our “Book of Dreams” which gives the reader the ultimate feeling of authenticity when reading the hopes and dreams of these pupils.

Map: We again used a Google interactive map to mark the positions of the schools and supply interesting statistical data about them.

Striking stories: If you are prepared to spend a bit of time like our team did, you will find a wealth of of stories in rural South Africa.

One of the most striking stories is that of 25-year-old Nomalanga Qadi: Nomalanga is no ordinary matric pupil – she is 25-years-old and is the sole guardian of her brother Mandla, 15, and sister  Zanele, 13. She is also a mother to two-year-old Lungani.

She takes time off from Nomagqwethekana Comprehensive Technical High School to fetch social grants she needs  to support her family.

Our team hopes that focusing on the desperate situation of Qadi and others like her will help to improve their lot in life.

All-in-all, this was one of our most rewarding online investigations to date and we hope the experience we had with it will inspire other journalists around the world to do the same.

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