Finding the human angle: Gay Alcorn

Collaborative journalism between media outlets can help maintain high standards of journalism as newsrooms around the world shrink, according to Gay Alcorn, the Melbourne editor of Guardian Australia.

Ms Alcorn gave a guest lecture to Macleay students in Melbourne days after the Guardian and 95 media partners published the Paradise Papers – a special investigation into 13.4 million leaked files from two offshore service providers and company registries from 19 tax havens.

Ms Alcorn said joint operations like these by investigative journalists are more useful for the audience than individual media outlets going it alone.

“It’s just a reality, we have shrinking resources. It’s almost impossible for one news organisation to do [investigations like these], and it’s much better to have different organisations in different countries drilling in on the documents that relate particularly to that country.”

And she said Australia may see more collaborative investigations in the coming years.

“We don’t have the big philanthropic donors that they do in the United States that will really push [investigations] along as they have done, but I can see it happening in little ways [in Australia] here and there,” she said.

“We’ve worked with a couple of universities, and we’re collaborating with IndigenousX on covering indigenous issues, so I can see it bubbling away.”

Ms Alcorn also discussed her illustrious career with students, including the time she spent as the Washington correspondent for The Age and how she went about covering both the 2000 US presidential election and the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001.

When asked how she found her own unique angle on the 2000 US election, she said: “I didn’t have hundreds of contacts. I couldn’t ring up the head of the Democrats and ask, ‘what was your strategy?’ I tried to cover the human aspect of it more.”

Ms Alcorn said she was at the US Supreme Court when it announced its decision on Florida, describing it as an important personal experience as a journalist.

“That was a very intense election because Florida was in play and they had to have a recount. I thought that was very important because I did feel I saw the underbelly of politics,” she recalled.

“I hadn’t quite seen it as obviously as that. Not that it was corrupt, but that it was just all about power.”

Ms Alcorn said she thought covering the closest election in American history would be the biggest story she would report on during her time in Washington. Then the following year, 9/11 happened.

“It was a profound experience,” Ms Alcorn says on covering the 2001 attacks.

“I wept for the week after, I couldn’t comprehend it at all. I remember talking to Americans just on the street and they just had this sense of ‘How can they do that to us?’,” she said.

“Americans, then, didn’t have a great sense of what was going on in the world at all. They had a sense of themselves as being benign, benevolent forces in the world and they were just baffled why they would have any enemies.”

Again, she said, she looked for human elements to tell the wider story.

“There was a report that the Pentagon had been hit, and I lived close to the Pentagon. My husband actually drove me down to the Pentagon and I started reporting from there,” Ms Alcorn recalls.

“My focus in terms of getting human reaction was the Pentagon and Washington itself, then my job was to cover the politics.

“I’ll never forget all the members of Congress lining up on the stairs and singing America the Beautiful. There were some profoundly moving moments.”

When asked if the industry is appropriately helping journalists who may suffer from PTSD as a result of covering events like 9/11, Ms Alcorn said much progress had been made.

“When I was at The Age there was a lot more awareness of that when people were covering tsunamis or bushfires, so I think we are better than we once were.

“But there is still a bravado among journalists that we’re there to report and our situation isn’t as bad as the people who can’t get a plane out, who have lost their homes or their families.

“There is a little bit of a sense that we should be tougher than the people who are living with the crisis but I do think there is a greater awareness now than there was 20 years ago.” – Kyle Standfield @kylestandfield