A new independent documentary that investigates the coercion of women and girls into UK gangs has just been released. But there was no big budget, team of scriptwriters and camera crews involved: it was created by one young journalist and a producer.
GXNG Girls takes a solutions approach to the topic, exploring how grassroots organisations, youth leaders, teachers and victims can help combat the issue.
The documentary is the product of a years' worth of effort by Abbianca Makoni, a multimedia journalist at The Evening Standard. In her spare time, she has been working on the investigation, together with executive producer and editor Samson Falodun.
Why? In a podcast with Journalism.co.uk, Makoni said that while her newsroom could have handled the story, The Standard had focused on the coronavirus pandemic, Brexit and the other significant political events of 2020, leaving little resources for this documentary.
So she decided to do it herself. This is also a subject close to her heart, as she has lost a friend to gang violence in the past. Falodun, whom she collaborated with already, had a personal attachment to the topic too.
"We are two young creatives who have a passion for this issue, and it's something that, although it affects everyone, also affects our community. So let's do it, let's go and see what we can do together and put this issue in the limelight," she explains.
When exploring a sensitive story such as this, all sorts of considerations can crop up, like intrusion into personal grief or interviewing vulnerable sources. Normally, an editor or an editorial team is on hand to offer guidance and a second opinion to make sure reporting is fair and ethical.
But with just two people leading the project, how did they tackle these ethical questions?
Call on trusted sources
For the documentary, Makoni turned to a number of contacts she and Falodun had worked with previously. This is not just handy for gaining quick interviews but getting a wider perspective on your approach.
"If they have a question or query, they're quick to [ask] you, 'how are you going to do this?' says Makoni. "And they don't shy away from also challenging you and asking you how you're going to go about certain things."
When approaching new sources, however, be prepared to show examples of previous work to prove that you are a credible and trustworthy journalist.
If you have other journalism friends and mentors you can call upon, now is the time to do so. A big concern she had throughout was cutting down the piece whittling down contributor's personal accounts.
Many sources do not realise how much of their stories are left on the cutting room floor. The advice Makoni received was to do your best to manage their expectations.
"Every time I know there's going to be a delay because of covid-19 or I'm too pre-occupied with something else, I would always just let them know.
"That's one thing they have appreciated, saying 'Abbianca, it's okay, you can stop emailing us now'," she joked.
Some of her contacts spoke about witnessing murders and dealing with grief. Industry guidelines are in place in the UK, with code four of IPSO stating: "In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings."
Makoni advises always to check in with your sources and double-check they are happy with what will be made public. Offering a degree of control on sensitive subjects is important, she said, as journalists have a duty of care to ensure vulnerable contributors do not feel intruded upon.
"Even after the interview and once the doc had been completed, just going back to say 'I know we spoke about this', and double-check that everything is okay because I do understand, in the moment when you are being interviewed, you may say things or mention things [you might regret]."
Good things take time. Expect setbacks and try not to get impatient with the process. GXNG Girls took a whole year to complete, and Makoni said she was glad it was not rushed.
"To get a good story or just explore things properly, you need that patience and understand things will not always go your way.
"Particularly if you do it independently, you'll think it will be done in a few months but it's not that easy at all," she concludes.
For clarity: after this interview took place, The Evening Standard discussed working with Makoni to produce more investigative pieces looking at issues affecting communities.
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