Drawing data from darkness

Their campaign, “Knowing what we’re up against” won Best Campaign and the Gold at the 2016 Our Watch Awards. Lauren Novak and Sheradyn Holderhead share what they learned about the value of collaboration, and building pressure on the police to share vital information. Photo above: Lauren Novak and Sheradyn Holderhead accept the Gold Our Watch Award in Sydney on September 14. Credit: Adam Hollingworth.

Journalists are inherently competitive, so it should come as no surprise that two 20-something reporters on the same paper, both striving to break into the combative politics round, may set out to one-up each other.

It was in this scenario that we found ourselves when we began reporting on a royal commission into sexual abuse in South Australian schools a few years ago.

Journalists across the state were competing to scoop each other and we initially followed suit. But it didn’t take long to realise this was expending double the effort for half the results — so we did something radical and decided to work together to scoop the competition instead.

A team approach made for more rounded stories, rich with background knowledge and a broader range of voices than if we had gone it alone.

It was this thinking that helped earn us this year’s Our Watch Gold award for investigative reporting on violence against women and children.

For more than a year we gathered evidence which enabled us to gradually paint a picture of this social scourge.

Our mantra: To tackle a problem, you must first know what you’re up against.

Family violence is taking greater prominence in the national media but we’re still only seeing the tip of the iceberg.

It has proven frustratingly difficult to access data which could show our readers the prevalence and effect of family violence in our state.

Learning how many intervention orders have been put in place to protect victims, or how many times they have been breached, has required repeated and lengthy Freedom of Information applications.

It has proven frustratingly difficult to access data which could show our readers the prevalence and effect of family violence in our state.

Data that show the geographical spread of this largely hidden problem was not released publicly, but squirrelled away amid reams of responses dumped on a little-known parliamentary committee.

SA Police avoided questions for months before we resorted to front page coverage to flush out details on how many South Australian women and children had died as a result of family violence.

All this information should be publicly available, especially at a time when state and federal governments are hot on rhetoric about tackling domestic violence.

How are authorities to develop effective policies if they do not have the data to show them the nature of the problem? How are we to know if we’re making any difference if there is no way of tracking the impact of those policies? And if governments have this data, how can they justify keeping it from the public?

It is de-identified numbers – not intimate case notes. It puts no one at risk.

Instead, the release of this data has the potential to help avoid suffering. Being able to spell out exactly what we’re up against is crucial to bringing home the reality of family violence to the broader public in order to change attitudes.

Through a series of front-page exclusive stories, we campaigned in The Advertiser and Sunday Mail newspapers, and on advertiser.com.au, to increase openness and reveal the true impact of a problem too long kept behind closed doors.

We chipped away at the wall that South Australian police, ministers and courts authorities had built to unearth data, for the first time, on how many incidents of domestic violence are reported. How many abusers are charged. The suburbs where the most violence happens. How many women take out protection orders. How many perpetrators breach those orders, and how often.

It required the usual journalistic techniques — securing interviews, reading lengthy reports, lodging email requests and persisting with time-consuming FOIs.

We spent much time gaining the trust of victims whose stories were integral to showing readers why they should care about a problem they may not personally have faced. We are grateful they were willing to share their darkest moments and insights on fixing the system.

There were also hours of uncomfortable conversations and lobbying of senior police and political figures.
Sometimes we had to resort to calling out a lack of transparency before authorities would release information, such as in a front-page article condemning their refusal to say how many family violence deaths had occurred this year.

We believe our work has also forced a shift in culture so that authorities can no longer ignore demands for this kind of information.

Our story prompted the Police Commissioner to front a press conference that morning where, under our questioning, he revealed the figures we had been chasing.

Publication of this kind of information has increased awareness of the scale of the problem and prompted far more follow-up coverage by other media.

We believe our work has also forced a shift in culture so that authorities can no longer ignore demands for this kind of information.

Attending the Our Watch awards and seeing the work produced by so many other committed journalists reignited the fire in our bellies to keep pushing on this issue.

Those in the room shared with us how they had confronted authorities in their states and we came away with a raft of ideas on how to further pursue the agenda in SA.

In return, our approach could be duplicated interstate to put pressure on leaders in all jurisdictions to be more transparent.

There is a lack of consistency across borders when it comes to legislation, information-sharing, policing and reporting processes. Harmonisation is on the Council of Australian Government’s agenda and leaders must get on the same page. Quickly.

Next for us is to repeat our work in SA to start building a database of consistent figures which can be compared year on year.

Our newsroom has taken a similarly consistent approach to child protection coverage, which eventually resulted in the Government beginning to publish monthly updates on a series of key figures.

It would be another win if this could be replicated for family violence.

Advocacy and campaigning through the media clearly requires consistency, persistence and pressure. To that point, our work would not have had the impact it did if it had not been run on the front page of an agenda-setting metropolitan newspaper, and regularly.

The recognition of Our Watch and the Walkley Foundation is an encouragement to our editors (and others) to continue giving this issue the column inches and airtime it needs — so we can truly show the public what we’re up against.

Lauren Novak (@Lauren__Dailey) is a federal political reporter for The Advertiser and Sunday Mail newspapers and advertiser.com.au. She was named Best Print/Online Journalist at the 2016 SA Media Awards. Sheradyn Holderhead (@SheradynTiser) is a political reporter for The Advertiser and Sunday Mail newspapers and advertiser.com.au.