Mekong Fellows Dig Deeper into Investigative Data Journalism

Since the beginning of April, 12 journalists from the Mekong countries have participated in activities offered under the Mekong Data Journalism Fellowship – a program jointly run by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the East-West Center. 

One of the key activities is an 80-hour data journalism course in which fellows learn how to transform numbers into compelling investigative stories about the threats facing the Mekong River basin and solutions for the protection of the ecosystem and the 70 million people who depend on it.  

“The Fellowship is an important opportunity to put reporters in the field of data harvesting and data analysis,” said Khai Don, a Vietnamese fellow and freelance contributor for The Straits Times and BBC Vietnamese Service. “We are learning to pick and arrange different puzzle pieces in a big picture of the environment of the Mekong Region.”

The fellowship is an eight-month program that provides data skills for journalists based in the Mekong region. The course was designed by Internews’ Data Journalism Advisor Eva Constantaras with assistance from Thibi and Open Development Cambodia, data consultants based in Myanmar and Cambodia, respectively.

In addition to the 80-hour data journalism trainings, they also attend virtual seminars hosted by the East-West Center on the current status of the Mekong River basin.

The seminars bring global and regional experts from the Stimson Center, International Rivers and the World Wildlife Fund together with journalists from Reuters and the New York Times to discuss the basin’s challenges, including hydropower dam construction, ecological loss, and climate change.

Meanwhile, the data journalism training course has introduced new skills to the fellows, including writing hypotheses for data storytelling and practicing data scraping and search techniques.

Screenshot from a webinar showing a pivot table
Internews’ Data Journalism Advisor Eva Constantaras teaches the Fellows about pivot tables.

Through the partnership with the Stimson Center, fellows were introduced to the Mekong Dam Monitor and Mekong Infrastructure Tracker, two open-source data platforms that track development and environmental issues in the region.

Tools like these are crucial for journalists who are new to data, such as fellow Socheata Hean, a Cambodian multimedia journalist for Voice of America Khmer in Phnom Penh.

 “It is an overwhelming but rewarding experience, in particular for a newbie like myself,” Hean said. “In our visual class, we look into other data-driven stories and discuss where they get the data. More importantly, I get to know new friends among Mekong countries, a good network to co-produce regional stories in the future.”

As the fellows move into the next portion of the training, they will use the skills learned during the course to produce their own data-driven stories. They are encouraged to collaborate on these projects. As one trainer highlighted during a session: “Data is a team sport.”

“What’s been inspiring is the shared enthusiasm amongst fellows to learn more about this topic,” said Fellow Boonyanin Pakvisal, the Thailand Correspondent for Southeast Asia Globe. “We’ve been able to come together from across the region. Trainers from across the world have been really enthusiastic and helpful.”

“Data journalism opens a lot of possibilities in reporting,” he continued. “I feel that the more we learn, the more questions come up, as well – which makes me eager to continue on for the rest of the training and producing the story at the end.”  This cohort is the first to participate in this training program, but not the last. Applications for the next round of Mekong Fellows will be open in the coming months.