Don’t look away.

By Gina McColl | 03 Feb 23
Melbourne tram tracks

Don’t look away.

That’s the challenge for journalists reporting on human rights and climate change. How to sustain attention, inspire people to care enough to vote and advocate for change. 

Now try doing that as a student journalist and getting your story published in mainstream media. 

This was the opportunity Right Now set for a lucky bunch of postgraduate students at the Centre for Advancing Journalism (University of Melbourne). The pay off? Scale. Impact. Investigations. New journalists launching careers with skills, contacts and credibility in climate and human rights reporting. 

Their mission: find out how climate change is or will impact citizens’ rights – to housing, to health, to safe work, to Indigenous institutions and practices – in ways distinct to that locality.

All politics is local, as the saying goes. After self-selecting into small groups, the students chose a defined location to start digging. 

The stories they discovered set across Melbourne suburbs – ranging from the bayside municipality of Port Phillip to Brimbank in the city’s west – may be hyperlocal, but they’re mirrored in cities across the world. Stories of community misery and lax regulation, of growing corporate profits and shrinking accountability – stories of places that will only become more vulnerable with climate change in years to come.

I worked for 20 years as a reporter before becoming a full-time investigative journalist at The Age; they were learning craft skills that working journalists take decades to master. 

Attempting to uncover news angles that weren’t being reported by those working the climate beat in newsrooms around the country, most students had never emailed the media advisers of government ministers and ASX-listed companies before, let alone held MPs and CEOs to account. 

The students learned to pivot as they were scooped by daily news journos. To persist despite endless rounds of knockbacks. To negotiate “on-background” comments and pseudonyms with whistleblowers.

The results are astonishing. 

At the time of writing, a short version of the first appeared in The Age on 19 January 2023, a second was published on Jan 29 and more are waiting in the wings.

Students Xinyi Li and Marilyn Tan pestered councillors and political candidates, tracked down experts and peer-reviewed research, and combed through financial and air monitoring data, to land an investigation into landfill fires that have been burning in the inner-west Melbourne suburb of Sunshine for more than three years, polluting the air and linked to dangerous health conditions in nearby residents. 

The story shines a light on landfill regulation – a dark and toxic corner of consumer societies that poses a risk to communities and environments, a risk that is only growing as the climate warms. 

For our second investigation, students Sasha Gattermayr, James Costa, Jade Murray and Helena Morgan interviewed residents of the City of Maribyrnong for a glimpse into what a future with hazardous air quality looks like. For this community, the human right to clean air is simply not available to them –- their health, and that of their children, is suffering as a result.

We look forward to hearing what you think of the first two investigations, and to sharing the next instalments over coming weeks.

Don’t look away.

Gina McColl

Head of investigations, Right Now