Megha Rajagopalan - It's okay to talk to me

Modesty, honesty, care and time, together with varying doses of obsession and concern, are recurring themes in Megha Rajagopalan's story of how she became a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist investigating human rights issues. Megha talks about what it takes to develop and respect sources, to pursue topics, and to embrace collaboration with people from other professional backgrounds in order to reveal a different narrative.

You don't want to immediately frame everything you do as an investigation. It may be that you've produced something that uncovers some kind of wrongdoing, but I guess to term it as an investigation from the outset, it's almost like you're predetermining what the final result is going to be.

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About the speaker

Megha Rajagopalan is a senior correspondent for BuzzFeed News in London. She has reported from over 23 countries in Asia and the Middle East on stories ranging from the North Korean nuclear crisis to the peace process in Afghanistan. Previously, she spent six years as a correspondent in China for Reuters and BuzzFeed News. Her most recent work has focused on documenting the scope and impacts of China's system of mass detention for Muslim minorities in its Xinjiang region, and her team's series on the subject, which used geospatial analysis, architectural modelling and dozens of interviews, won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting among other distinctions.

Transcript

You could say I was like a China beat reporter on general news in China. And a lot of my investigative work has grown out of that. I've worked on a bunch of different countries, but I guess the work that I've been doing most recently has focused on the region of Xinjiang, which is in the west of China. The most recent investigation that I did on that subject, with Alison Killing and Christo Buschek has been basically a project to document the scope and the size of China's mass detention program targeting Muslim minorities in the region. I'm Megha Rajagopalan. I'm a senior correspondent with BuzzFeed News in London.

All of my investigative work has been journalistic work. I guess, for journalists there's not the kind of strict division between investigative work and regular journalistic work that maybe people outside the industry might imagine. I started my career as a beat reporter, which essentially means that you report consistently on a particular topic or a particular area. So for instance, you could be a beat reporter focusing on diplomacy, or you could focus on crime in a big city. I would probably identify as a journalist first. And then I guess I've never really called myself an investigator, but a lot of the work that I do is investigative, probably the work that I enjoy doing the most. I think there's a lot of kind of service value in revealing things that are of significance to the public that would otherwise stay hidden. To be a good investigator as a journalist, I think - it doesn't have to, but a lot of the time people that are really good at it - it comes out of trying hard to develop an expertise in the subject, getting to know people that are true experts and just spending a lot of time covering developments, rather than diving in and just doing one big story or one big series. I've definitely done it the second way as well, but I think the first way is possibly more effective. And I think to do that, a lot of that work is not necessarily going to be investigations. Like it could just be about, you know, profiling someone or... yeah, writing stories in different ways, but that get you to a place where you can make bigger discoveries and like, you understand how to do that.

I had been based in China for a long time and I had reported on issues in Xinjiang, sort of among other things for a pretty long time, almost since like 2012, 2013, I'd been writing about the region and I had been traveling nearly even before that. So I was pretty familiar with the issues at least, as familiar as an outsider can be, keen to explore more about it. At the time that Alison and I started thinking about the series, it was beginning to come out that the government's mass detention program was something that was quite significant in terms of its ambition. Like, there were UN officials and governments that were starting to say that more than a million people had been detained. At the same time, you had this situation where access to the region was just getting worse and worse. There were a lot of obstacles to doing traditional journalism in the region, meaning, you know, going there and talking to people and visiting places. The method by which we did the series was a bit unusual, at least for a work of journalism. And I think that that was sort of borne out of necessity. So I think that was the thing that was really unusual about the project was like, sort of the method rather than the subject.

I guess on a personal level, obviously I think discovery is a thrill, you know, it's really gratifying. If there is some piece of information or some document or some piece of evidence that you're looking for, I think if you have to do a lot of digging to be able to get to it, once you get to it, it is like this kind of sense of relief. It's like, you know that you have enough to put a story together to do the thing that you set out to do. I feel like a lot of people that do investigations are sort of naturally good at it. They're curious people, they're people that know how to think strategically. And it's sort of like once you complete all of these things that you're supposed to do to get to the information, once you actually get to it, it's kind of amazing. I mean, a lot of my work has focused on human rights issues and also kind of like accountability for human rights abuses. You know, it's not that there are no journalists reporting on this. There are quite a few at this point. The problem is that most of the journalists that are reporting on it either have lost their access, as I have, or they are DC-based or Brussels-based and they're covering the policy side in the US, or they're covering issues around supply chains. And they have a bit of a different perspective than I would.

I guess what Alison and I have been focused on doing is figuring out what the facts on the ground are. I think that's sort of how I see our contribution. And I have thought like, if we weren't doing this work, probably nobody else would do it. I think particularly in this case, because it's such a weird combination - it's like a journalist and a programmer and an architect working on a project together - I guess the work we produced was kind of a marriage of all three of those backgrounds. It's not like there's tonnes of journalists that have the time and the space and the resources and the ability to work with people from different disciplines. So I think that's definitely a big motivation for me, especially since, I guess during my time covering this subject, I've gotten to know so many people who have been directly impacted by the Chinese government's policies in Xinjiang, whether there are ex-detainees, or whether they have a family member that is an ex-detainee, you know, many of those people have taken great risks to speak to us as well as other journalists. Some of them are on social media, some of them have made themselves public in different ways. And I think the ones that have, have this understanding that if they put their name and their face to something, they're giving their story an additional measure of credibility. The real truth is that if they weren't doing that, none of this would be - you know, the public would not know about any of this. They're the ones making this huge sacrifice, and there are many of those people that have spoken to me and have allowed me to interview them and stuff like that, often about things that are very traumatic to them, very, very difficult experiences that they've had. I feel like it's almost, it's a bit of a betrayal, if I was gonna, you know, stop working on this, at least for now. I mean, they really need journalists to report on this subject.

I wasn't really thinking about becoming a journalist until I was in university. I sort of started working at the student newspaper. The university I went to was a public university in the US and there was like a senate - they called it the university senate - and it was made up of faculty, basically. And I can't really for the life of me remember exactly what their mandate or responsibilities were, but we had discovered that they just weren't having meetings. It was something like that. Like they had just cancelled a meeting for no reason. And they were a body that - they had to exist to make decisions. So we ran this story about it. I didn't even realize that it was a story, I had just found out and then somebody who understood way more about the administration of the university was like, 'um, this is actually a pretty significant thing, people are going to be upset about this'. And then we published the story and it made a big splash. And I was like, this is kind of exciting because these people are kind of screwing up and we've done something to show them that somebody is actually watching. So I got interested in it I think from around that time. And I guess the other big thing that got me interested in investigation as a kind of journalism was my first job out of college. I was a book assistant for a writer named Steve Coll, who is currently the Dean of Columbia Journalism School. At that time, he was writing a book about ExxonMobil, it's called Private Empire, ExxonMobil and American Power. I didn't really know what I was getting into as a book assistant - I knew his work of course - and I was just really excited to work for him. He's best known for a book called Ghost Wars, which is about the run-up to 9/11 and all the things that went wrong.

Yeah, like it was just like a really incredible experience because he let me do a lot. That was like the first thing. Like, he let me sort of run loose and interview people and try to find former employees and people who were Senate staffers and stuff like that. And he just - he was like, 'do research on subject x'. It was really interesting to try to figure out how to get to the centre of some of these issues, like this whole process of, you start from the outside and then you work your way in and you get to the person that's the closest to what you want to figure out. That's something you sort of have to figure it out by doing it, being told, like, 'find out everything you can about this', and then having to figure out who all of the people close to it were, what order to approach them, what documents I should be looking for, how to ask for documents, where to find documents, how to go through them. It was the first time that I had done this whole process and I just really enjoyed it. Like it was - it was amazing. And then - cause I was like twenty-one or something - I didn't even think that I was capable of doing this stuff. And then to have some of that material go into a book that was going to be like a bestselling book, that was written by a writer that had won two Pulitzers. It was just the most incredible thing, learning a method and just gradually getting better at the craft, and like improving my interviewing skills and my planning skills and all of that stuff.

The other thing is that I just learned a hell of a lot just by watching him interview and watching him work. He has this style that I still kind of try to mimic today - I think, even though it's many years later - in that he asks people questions in a very open way in order to help them feel that he's making a sincere effort to understand where they're coming from. Sometimes that takes a bit longer and it can be tricky if you're working with a source who's very busy or doesn't have a lot of time, but in general, I think it yields better responses than if you just sort of dive in. The remarkable thing about that technique is it can work with a source that's friendly and it can also work with somebody who's hostile. And it actually works better, I think, with people who are hostile, because people who are starting this conversation by being hostile to you, they already have their guard up, and the more you can work to help them relinquish that, I think the better. So I guess just sort of being around when somebody who's such an adept and experienced interviewer was working. Yeah. Like it was a real transformative thing for me.

A lot of people like friends of mine who are not journalists, always ask me, like, 'why would anyone ever talk to you? Why would anyone leak a document to you?' Because no one can - most people cannot imagine doing something like that. And in fact, people who do it also sometimes could not have imagined doing it until they were actually doing it. I guess one thing I learned sort of early on is that it's really important when you're talking to someone, especially if you're trying to get some bit of information from them, to think about what is actually their motivation to help you with this, right? People have all kinds of motivations to talk to journalists. People have a combination of motivations. I think the reason that you need to understand these things is because - obviously for instance, if somebody has an axe to grind, you don't want to necessarily give them a platform uncritically, you want to know what it is you're getting into and you don't want that person to be able to manipulate you. Conversely, if somebody is like, genuinely morally outraged by something and trying to expose it, I think that's good to know as well. Of course people like that... some people can be on a crusade and those things aren't good as well. No matter who you're talking to, you just have to, you have to start from a position of trying to understand their point of view. I think that is sort of the first thing that enables people to drop their guards. I think that's one thing. And then also showing them that you're a credible person, that you're not going to try to... you know, you're going to do the work that it will take to frame what they're saying in an honest way, and in a way that makes sense and incorporates the necessary context. I think that's really important. And for me, because I've now been reporting on one particular subject for a number of years, it's gotten a lot easier because, you know, some people will read my work or they'll be familiar and then they'll already come in thinking, 'okay, this person is not - whatever else happens, they're not going to completely misunderstand what I'm saying'. But I think that if you're new to reporting on a subject, it can be a little bit harder to get to that point.

I did this investigation in the Philippines. This was the first investigative project I did after I joined Buzzfeed, and this was at the height of the drug war there. For anyone who doesn't know, the president of the Philippines, whose name is Rodrigo Duterte, basically launched this campaign of police, police violence, honestly, and vigilante killings of people who were suspected drug users. So not dealers or anything like that. We're talking about small-time users and sellers - people with makeshift homes selling rice or selling vegetables on the street. Like, people who are honestly intensely vulnerable. I was based in Southeast Asia at the time. I knew that I wanted to do this piece on the Philippines and I knew that the US was giving aid to police in the Philippines. And they do that because of, I guess the historical relationship between those two countries that stems from the colonial period. And also because the US wants to basically maintain good ties with the military and the police in the Philippines, like for it's broader strategy in the region. So I started this off with a question, right? The question is: 'is the US government specifically giving aid money to police units that are directly implicated in the drug war?'. So that was the burden of proof. So to answer that, you have to first figure out what police units is the US giving aid money to. Yeah, so how do you figure that out? So obviously, the people that are giving aid have documentation, there's also accountability bodies in the US that have to have access to this documentation. So I started going around and asking people in DC, like, do you have any sense of who this aid money is going to, and stuff like that. Eventually I got a document that listed all of the individual police units that had received the aid money. So then the next part of the question is, 'are these units committing gross human rights violations, right?' I went to Manila. I went to a bunch of different police stations, like police units, in Metro Manila. And I literally showed up with a t-shirt and jeans and a backpack, and then I started asking them all these questions about how they were acting in the drug war. And I think because of the way I was dressed and the way I looked, there was already this level of, you know, maybe underestimation. I think someone asked me if I was doing a school project, which I really love when people ask stuff like that. And, sure enough, as soon as you start talking about it, people were quite happy to admit what it was that their officers were doing.

There was one police official who even said, you know, he was like, 'the drug war has been really successful, we've seen rates of burglary, robberies, all of these crimes going down', he was like, 'of course the murder rate has gone through the roof, but that's to be expected'. And I was like, this is ridiculous. It was like, if anyone's ever seen this documentary, The Act of Killing, which is a really incredible documentary, it felt a little bit like that. It felt so insane that people would talk openly about things like vigilante killings and stuff like that. Sometimes people will tell you these things because in their particular universe, it's not necessarily considered as crazy as it would look to you as an outsider. For them, they were already in the context of this drug war, where the president of the country was encouraging them to do these actions. That really helped put the story together because, you know, the police also gave me data, data about arrests, about killings, about all this stuff. In addition, to explain what they had done, I went out a bunch of times at night to the scenes of killings and in different parts of Metro Manila. And like that also helped with documentation and with learning about the cost of this. It's an example of, like, you start with a research question, you start with a question about what you want to find out, and then you sort of divide that question up and figure out how to get to each individual part. I think the thing that worked with that story is like putting those three components together: the narratives and personal stories of the people that were impacted as well as the information about how they dealt with the police and where they were located, the document that showed where the US money had actually gone to, and then the third thing was of course the data and the interviews with the police officers who sort of explained what they were doing on the ground.

I spend a lot of time thinking about source safety. I think everyone really has to, I think it's a responsibility. It's really hard, especially working on China issues it can be quite hard just because if you're talking to people in China, they don't have access to a lot of encrypted apps and stuff that we would. I'm pretty sure Signal's blocked there now; like WhatsApp is not really that usable. So you can't protect your sources in the same way that you would somewhere else. I mean, we can talk a lot about technology and you know, what to do in concrete terms, in terms of digital security and providing that to your sources as well. But like, I guess more on a philosophical point, I guess I always try to think about, you know, consent and what does consent mean when you interview someone. For me, like if I'm interviewing someone who's really vulnerable, right? Like supposing somebody who was formerly detained in an internment camp in Xinjiang. You know, if they say to me, 'I want to give my name, I want to attach my photo to this'. I really want to make sure they understand what that means. I want them to understand if this is going to have an impact on any family that they might have in China, for instance. Basically what it means to have their name and their photo, on a site like Buzzfeed, which has no paywall and is at the top of your Google results. They may not necessarily - if they're not reading English language news, they may not really know what that means. By the same token, I think the flip-side of that is that for somebody that genuinely wants to come forward, wants the credibility of having their name or photo associated with their story and understands that that will make the story better and more believable to readers, I don't want to deny them the opportunity to do that. If they're taking on a risk and they're sort of mindfully choosing to take on that risk, that's their agency and that's their right. And I'm happy for them to do that.

It's a really tricky balance. I have lots of colleagues who have talked to sources who have then gotten arrested. Like these things happen sometimes. I think the best we can do is try to mitigate risk as much as humanly possible, not just the sources, but to colleagues as well, make sure that the people that are really taking on the risk are truly informed, genuinely informed about what they're getting into. I'm lucky. I have a US passport and I live in London. I mean, I don't think as much about risk to myself as a journalist as probably like most journalists in the world do. I mean, it's a little bit weird to say now, because you know, there are so many Anglophone journalists now who have lost access in China who have faced really bad harassment. I guess if you look at it now, it seems like actually quite a risky place to be a journalist. A lot of journalists in China, like foreign journalists, get detained by local police or, this is something that happens often. It's really just, honestly, a bit of a time-waster. I think if I were in country now, I would probably see it in a bit of a different way.

In the journalistic universe, we're sort of like... it's a little too insular. When I was a student, I think I took a course in what was then called computer assisted reporting, which we would now call data journalism, like the process of collecting and cleaning and analyzing data as a journalistic method. And that, at that time, was considered a new form of investigation. Now I feel like things have opened up to so many more different kinds of approaches. I guess a big thing that I learned just from working with Alison and Christo is that - I mean, Alison especially, when I met her I had been reporting on Xinjiang on and off for a few years, and I thought I knew the issue pretty well. But when I met her, she immediately had this completely different approach. She immediately started thinking about the physical spaces that these people were being held in, where the camps were and the region, and what that would tell us. It was just a completely different mode of thinking. I was just blown away by that. She thinks in a way that it comes naturally to her. And I could never do that. I really hope that the industry - the media industry - will broaden the way they think about investigators. I think there are so many people with different specialties, like in academia, in fields like toxicology and architecture, geospatial analysis, data sciences, AI, that have the potential to work on journalistic projects and to contribute to projects that are intended for the general public. There are people from these backgrounds that really want to engage in these projects, but they may not necessarily know how to pitch a news organization, or like, navigate the bureaucracy of getting an article published, or like, they might think the only avenue open to them is to write an op-ed. That suggests that there's something about the bureaucracy of our industry that is not actually the most friendly or transparent or accessible. And I think that I personally, and my news organization, we've gained so much from breaking down that wall and going to work with an architect and a programmer on this project. I feel optimistic because of the success of that project. I hope that other teams will see that and think like, you know, they could do something similar, even if they don't have a traditional background like that.

I think I can be kind of obsessive, which is both a good and a bad thing. You don't want to be obsessive to the point that you keep going, even after you've already got it. And - my editor's awesome, and that's something that he probably helps me with. I try to like, not leave stones unturned - if I can interview two dozen people about something or a dozen, I'll do the two dozen, I would rather do that and have the confidence that I haven't left something on the table. I mean, I don't think anyone's ever been intimidated by me. So I think that's quite a good thing. I'm not sure how good I am at putting people at ease, but I do feel that being underestimated has been a positive thing for me and my career, and there are probably a lot of women that can say that as well.

I lay awake at night thinking, did I screw this up? Did I screw that up? Is someone going to get blowback that I don't want to get blow - you know what I mean? But I think that's good. You have to worry about those things. I think if you're not worrying about those things, you're actually doing a disservice. The parts that I find easier are just like the process of trying to discover information, whether it's interviewing or going through documentation, just because I feel like it's low pressure. It's often something you can do at your own pace. I like doing the work, right? I guess that to me comes a little bit more naturally.

I remember myself as an early career journalist and being intimidated by people who described themselves as investigative reporters and thinking, it's hard to do that kind of work unless that's your title or you have a specific mandate from your employer to do that kind of work. Obviously I'm not saying that news organizations shouldn't have investigative-specific reporters. You know, there are some projects that do just take a lot of time and a lot of digging and need somebody who's specialized in that particular kind of journalism to be able to carry it out. But I do think that anyone can do an investigation, regardless of what it is that you focus on. You can find something to be able to investigate.

I don't really describe myself that way because I don't want to like put off sources, because I think it's intimidating and my entire career I've tried to avoid intimidating people until I've made people feel like they can talk to me and that it's okay to talk to me and stuff. And I do - maybe I'm wrong, but if I were working at some company that had done something bad, or with some organization that had done something bad and I wasn't necessarily part of it, but I was contacted by someone who described themselves as an investigator, investigative journalist, I would run far away, right? You don't want to immediately frame everything you do as an investigation. It may be that you've produced something that uncovers some kind of wrongdoing, but I guess to term it as an investigation from the outset, it's almost like you're predetermining what the final result is going to be. I always think it's more helpful just to approach people and say 'oh, I'm a reporter. I'm doing interviews about this subject, I'm just trying to understand your background or what you feel about X'. Like, I feel like that's a much nicer way to approach someone than to say, like 'I'm an investigator'. And then it also kind of feels a little bit ego maniacal to describe yourself like that in some sense.

Credits

The Exposing the Invisible podcast series is produced by Tactical Tech. 

Interview, production and sound design by Jo Barratt.

Tactical Tech's Exposing the Invisible team includes Laura Ranca, Wael Eskandar, Marek Tuszynski and Christy Lange.

Music by Wael Eskandar.

Additional music is Cold War Echo by Kai Engel used under a Creative Commons 4.0 Attribution licence

Sound effects by RTB45 and kevp888 used under a Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution licence. Additional sound effects used have been dedicated to the public domain by their creators.

Illustration by Ann Kiernan


This podcast episode is part of a series of resources and publications produced by Exposing the Invisible during a one-year project (September 2020 - August 2021) supported by the European Commission (DG CONNECT)

European Commission

This content reflects the author’s view and the Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.


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