CIJ Trainer Crina Boros Remembers David Donald
David Donald, an American journalist, computer-assisted reporting (CAR) trainer and mentor extraordinaire lost a battle with mesothelioma at age 64. But his life cannot be simply measured in years. I’m just one of the mentees that he allowed to stand on his shoulders, a perspective that changed many investigative reporters forever.
“Are you ready?” David asked. We were about to enter a corridor leading to a restaurant, full to brim with investigative journalists, who were in Belgium for the first major conference where I was invited to train data-driven journalism.
Just a few years previously, in 2010, I had attended the CIJ Summer School. I took all data analysis classes on the schedule and had an “eureka” moment during David’s. It wasn’t obvious then, but this was going to be life-changing.
As the British media were seeing their first major data-driven investigative breakthroughs, David would fly from Washington to London to train three times a year. Poorly attended in its early days, the CIJ’s CAR courses were now selling out, and the former Investigative Reporters and Editors training director needed an assistant in class.
The first crop of CIJ interns were already mining data and starting to establish themselves at the Financial Times, BBC, the Guardian and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. I was part of the second intern generation, which allowed me easy access to his classes, to coach for him and see data journalism through his approach.
Looking like a version of Einstein and exuding grace, David was quietly but firmly politically subversive, not an everyday fusion. The data sets he mined in class in order to recruit new data journalism disciples revealed failures of the justice system, interests behind political campaign finance, misuse of public funding or issues affecting vulnerable groups.
His teaching methods went beyond IT skills or reporting. On the training floor, he inspired everyone to believe that there was no technical issue that could not be solved, no reporter that couldn’t dig deeper or better through data and that most obstacles could be overcome.
As my mentor, he would ask question that would set my CAR practice within the context of who I was as a person, reporter and trainer.
“Get comfortable with not always getting it right the first time, because once you learn how to solve a problem, you’ll never forget it,” he would say.
David offered his London-based CIJ bootcamps as a testing ground for aspiring CAR trainers. His guidance for us was always about how and why things are doable. You really felt like he was growing a pair of infallible wings on your back.
He became an ally in seeing through sensitive human rights stories. When publication was denied, he offered me the training floor as an option to disseminate the findings. We paired-up on training in London, The Netherlands and Belgium, but he also opened more doors that allowed free speech to spill into CAR teaching.
His friendship came not only with wisdom and datasets, but with cheese and wine. This is when he would fully reveal his wry humour, cynicism, the fulfilling pride he had in his mentees’ achievements, and, if you were lucky, his political affinities.
When I asked the CAR evangelist why he mentored, he said: “I, too, once stood on the shoulders of giants. This is my way of giving back.”
Back in the Belgium, David walked into the restaurant as I nervously grabbed on his arm for the first and last time. He introduced me to the data journalism tribe and I’ve learnt that his CAR gospel lessons were really about standing up tall for what you believe in.