How to investigate a story that has been covered before? Find a new lens that will make people care | Columbia Journalism School

How to investigate a story that has been covered before? Find a new lens that will make people care

Journalism has taken Ali Raj, '18 M.A. Arts and Culture, far and wide: from reporting on terrorism in his native Pakistan, to studying arts journalism at Columbia and finally, to the Marshall Islands as a Columbia Journalim Investigations fellow, where he combined his skills to uncover the legacy of U.S. nuclear testing and its impact on the Marshallese culture. The resulting piece, Marshall Island folk artists suffer from cancers. U.S. nukes bear much of the blame, was recently published in the Los Angeles Times. 

For this installment of The Beat, Raj talks about his career path, and the road to this important and underreported story in The Marshall Islands. 

The Beat is an interview series with the School's postgraduate fellows that educates the public on how deeply reported investigations are made. 

Q: How did the idea to write about the impact of radioactive fallout on Marshallese singers come about?

We had begun working on a project about nuclear radiation in the Marshall Islands with Susanne Rust, our former editor at the fellowship. While she was working on an investigation about new evidence of alarmingly high radiation levels in several parts of the island nation, I wanted to tell the story of continued health implications for the Marshallese through a lens that will make people care.

I began my research by reading the anthropologist Holly Barker’s seminal book "Bravo for the Marshallese: Regaining Control in a Post-Nuclear, Post-Colonial World" (2004). Barker worked for decades in the Marshall Islands and her book is a great primer on the country’s complex history. Second, I read "Consequential Damages of Nuclear War: The Rongelap Report" (2008), which Barker had co-authored with another brilliant scholar, Barbara Rose Johnston. "The Rongelap Report" is an in-depth study of the country’s nuclear legacy. In this book, I found an artist and activist, Almira Matayoshi, saying that the singers cannot harmonize anymore after getting treatment for thyroid cancers. Her sentiments were echoed by other artists interviewed by Barker and Johnston. This struck me and I set about investigating the history of thyroid cancers in the Marshall Islands and their impact on the singing voice. Both Barker and Johnston were very kind in sharing their expertise and guiding me during several preliminary interviews.

I also want to add that I benefited immensely from the research of the ethnomusicologist Jessica Schwartz. Her dissertation and published research papers on the nuclear legacy’s impact on Marshallese music and the singing voice helped contextualize the investigation.


Q: What challenges did you face in investigating or reporting the story?

The most important challenge was to be able to bring up the real impact of musicians not being able to sing. Music is the vehicle through which the Marshallese have passed on their history from one generation to the other. Recently, there was a land dispute in their Traditional Rights Court, wherein a song was presented as evidence for the ownership of an island, and it was accepted as legitimate. So, for cultural continuity, music is extremely important in that society and we wanted to convey that.

The nuclear legacy is a longstanding issue in the Marshall Islands and a lot has been said and written about it in the United States. A challenge for us was to find artists from the second and third generation of Marshallese, who were born decades after the testing, to prove that radiation sicknesses aren’t just prevalent among those alive during the 1950s.

Artists are sensitive people who see and understand things that other people in a society don’t. A lot of the Marshallese have also not had a good experience with American journalists, who they feel have in the past trivialized their suffering, so we had to be very sensitive to their pain and aspirations.

There are unanswered questions about the presence of radioiodine in the Marshall Islands and the intergenerational aspects of radiation sicknesses. The official position of the U.S. government on this issue has also changed over time. We looked for evidence that would persuade authorities to carry out a comprehensive cancer assessment in the country, and come to the aid of younger Marshallese who are still suffering.


Q: How did Columbia faculty and other resources assist in the development of the story?

Our new director of Columbia Journalism Investigations, Kristen Lombardi, joined soon after I had begun researching the project. Her editorial guidance was crucial to the story’s development, from the idea’s inception to its execution. Our former editor Susanne Rust also provided great feedback on the reporting and writing, helping ready the piece for final submission.

Bruce Shapiro, who heads the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, visited us for a lecture about reporting on conflict and trauma, and the discussion helped me fine tune my reporting strategy.

Our fellowship program provided funding for all my preliminary and on-the-ground reporting. Furthermore, the school also provided audio and video recording equipment, which I used to film the artists and record their music.

Q: The story was ultimately published in the Los Angeles Times, what was that like?

Susanne Rust had an arrangement with The Los Angeles Times to publish the project, so the relationship was formed right in the beginning. The Los Angeles Times has recently undergone a massive transition in terms of the paper’s ownership. They have been hiring a lot of people and the editorial staff now have a lot of resources on their hands to support deep-dive, impactful journalism.

The paper was hugely invested in the story, and that made life incredibly easy. Stuart Leavenworth came on board as head of the project in February 2019 and has been very hands-on. The paper’s Pulitzer-winning photojournalist Carolyn Cole went back to photograph the artists that I had interviewed. Earlier this year, she and I sat down and produced a short video feature to go alongside the story. The digital producer Sean Greene and data visualization producer Lorena Elebee put together the Big Build, which was accompanied by stellar graphics, especially the ones that analyze our main character Carlton Abon’s changed voice and a visual summary of raw cancer data that I had obtained from the Marshallese health department. I was also interviewed by TV presenter Lisa McRee for their TV show, LA Times Today, that features stories behind the stories published by the paper. Furthermore, the paper funded reporting trips to Arkansas, which has the highest concentration of Marshallese-Americans in the United States.

The road to publication was exciting but we also hit roadblocks, with the project getting delayed for a variety of reasons. I would say that it was well worth the wait.

Q: What impact have the fellowship and this story had on you or your career?

The story was my first formal foray into international reporting and publishing with a mainstream news outlet in the United States. The fellowship provided the opportunity, while making available the generous financial and institutional support of the school. The story helped me put to use my learnings from the M.A. program and familiarize myself with the workings of American journalism. The fellowship is a fantastic opportunity for recent graduates who wish to pursue deep-dive investigative projects, while working with some of the country’s leading news organizations that partner with the program.

Q: You were already an experienced reporter in Pakistan, what made you decide to enroll at the J-School?

I am originally from Pakistan, where I had worked in television, print and magazine journalism for about eight years. I was primarily interested in reporting on the intersection of culture and politics. However, I had joined journalism at a time when the country was going through the most devastating period of the War on Terror. Nearly every week we had bombs go off in different parts of the country. At a leading national daily, I was part of a desk that covered the volatile Pak-Afghan border and we had reports of suicide or improvised explosive device attacks every often. The violence was so widespread that the story would never make it to the front page if less than ten people had died in the attack. So, you can imagine what state would the arts and coverage about the arts would be in a country dealing with an existential crisis.

I wanted to seek professional training in this beat, and I found the M.A. Arts and Culture program an ideal opportunity to do so. I was a recipient of the Barbara London Lemann Scholarship Award, which helped overcome the financial constraints. Without the scholarship award, I would not have been able to attend Columbia.