ICFJ Voices: ‘Kunle Adebajo on the Importance of Covering the Past

By: Emma Kerr | 05/28/2024

ICFJ is celebrating our 40th anniversary and our long history of supporting journalists. Throughout the year, we will be showcasing network members from around the world.

For ‘Kunle Adebajo, journalism is about “keeping the important stories in our consciousness, getting justice for those treated unfairly, and setting the records straight for future generations.”

Based in Abuja, Nigeria, Adebajo leads the investigations desk at HumAngle. There, he covers a wide range of topics, such as conflicts, disinformation, human rights and the environment.

Adebajo has been involved with ICFJ for several years, starting in 2020 when he became a writer for ICFJ’s IJNet. In 2023, his article “Keeping up with the Chibok Girls” won the Michael Elliott Award for Excellence in African Storytelling, a prize that ICFJ gives out in partnership with the ONE Campaign and the Elliott family. Through this award, he completed a two-week internship at The Economist’s headquarters in London. This experience provided him with several important opportunities and takeaways that continue to influence and inspire the work he does today.

Here’s what he had to say.


How have you been involved with ICFJ over the years?

IJNet was my first introduction to ICFJ. It is a powerful resource that allows journalists worldwide to learn from one another and to share insights from their work or the work of other media practitioners. I also constantly visit the opportunities page to keep myself updated about workshops, grants, and awards I can apply for to improve myself.

In 2022, Code for Africa invited me to speak at a disinformation conference in Dakar supported by ICFJ. I spoke about how violent extremist groups in the Sahel region use disinformation and propaganda to promote their campaigns. However, I also went away with a new trove of knowledge on investigating coordinated disinformation campaigns and influence operations on social media.

Last year, I was announced as one of the winners of the Michael Elliott Award for Excellence in African Storytelling, and it remains one of the greatest highlights of my career as a journalist. I had always wanted to win because it recognized a person not just as a journalist but also as an excellent storyteller. One of the perks of winning is a short-term internship program at The Economist’s London office. I had an incredible time during the internship, met many absolutely brilliant journalists, and learned a whole lot about a broad range of topics.

What is the biggest takeaway you want readers to get from your article, “Keeping Up With The Chibok Girls?”

I want people to understand that no event is too stale to document. You should be able to write about it as long as the ripple effects from that event are still present (even if they are not so loud and visible), as long as there are essential parts of the story missing from public records, as long as there are lessons that can be learnt from revisiting the past. When a tragedy happens, we should not be so comfortable with moving on and forgetting about it simply because a good amount of time has passed. 

What was the biggest outcome from participating in the program(s)? 

The Dakar conference left a big imprint on me. I benefited from the hands-on training on investigating websites and social media events. I also properly learned how to use CrowdTangle and got onboarded to the platform. I would go on to lead a project in my newsroom to counter disinformation campaigns with the support of Code for Africa. We have published many brilliant and impactful reports under this partnership, analyzing and unraveling the online activities of jihadi extremist groups, separatist agitators and political actors, with some of them attracting the attention of a major social media company that reached out to collaborate with my organization. 

And what about your experience at The Economist? Did you find it beneficial? 

I picked up many ideas from my time at The Economist that I am now trying to implement in my newsroom back in Nigeria, from podcast scripting to newsletter design, intentionality about art, intentionality about the artificial intelligence revolution, social media engagement strategies, and so on.

One of the interactions that has stuck with me was our meeting with the data team. Seeing the ambitious and unconventional stories they worked on in the past opened my eyes to the crazy possibilities in data journalism. That session inspired a story I am currently developing with HumAngle’s OSINT specialist, Mansir Muhammed, which centers on using Google’s foot traffic data to tell a story about Monday curfews imposed by non-State actors in southeastern Nigeria.

Why is it so important right now to provide the kind of support to journalists that ICFJ does, especially in the region where you work and/or on the issues you work on?

One recurring problem you would observe if you were in a senior-level position in a newsroom here is a capacity shortage. Sadly, we do not have many capable hands in different sections of the industry: writing, editing, data analysis, multimedia production, OSINT investigation, and so on. And that is a gap ICFJ is helping to fill. The center is especially investing resources in those thematic areas that are not getting much attention but are nonetheless crucial. It is also important to build more bridges and encourage collaboration between journalists in different parts of the world. That way, we will have more diverse and in-depth storytelling and also raise the standards for journalists who have internalized a somewhat arbitrary way of doing things.

What are you currently working on - or what do you want to work on - that you’re excited about?

I want to try my hands at new forms of storytelling. My organization, HumAngle, is keenly interested in interactive and extended reality (XR) stories. The possibilities are endless and exciting. The advantage that comes with XR storytelling is that it completely arrests the consumer's attention and transports them to places they ordinarily would not be able to access in a way that fosters empathy. At the moment, I am interested in working on stories that combine that technology with data visualization and using it to show the impacts of underdevelopment on ordinary people in various situations. I am also looking into archival journalism and would like to write articles steeped in history. There is a startup in Nigeria called Archivi.ng that’s trying to digitize old newspapers and make them publicly accessible. There is an opportunity here for journalists to write refreshing stories about current trends through the lens of past events. I plan to grab it.

What kind of difficulties as a journalist have you faced in your region?

There is a climate of fear. Practicing journalism can oftentimes feel like walking a tightrope or defusing a bomb. Everyone knows journalism is a thankless job, but what do you do when it becomes a crime? People are afraid to speak to you because they know how deep the rot goes and they know what happens to those who try to expose it. And when you publish a groundbreaking investigation against all odds, the silence that follows will leave you looking like a clown for trying so hard. You can say mockery from those you are trying to help or a clampdown from those you are trying to correct is worse than silence, but at least those outcomes still suggest that people read your story, felt something, and perhaps got embarrassed enough to react. Practicing journalism can oftentimes feel like fetching water into a basket. You need either an unbelievable amount of optimism or none at all to keep going.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Happy 40th anniversary to ICFJ! There’s a popular saying in Nigeria that suggests 40 to be a really defining number. ICFJ has certainly set a great trajectory for itself in that critical period and I wish the organization many more decades of impactful work.

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