Marecia Damons is a young investigative journalist from South Africa and the recipient of both the Taco Kuiper Award and the 2023 Nat Nakasa Award for Media Integrity. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Language and Culture and an Honours degree in Journalism from Stellenbosch University. Marecia began her career at GroundUp News during the COVID-19 lockdown and now reports on education, housing, social services, and the judiciary.

Her work includes uncovering critical details in the Thabo Bester prison escape saga while overcoming significant obstacles. Marecia shares her journey, challenges, and insights for aspiring journalists; emphasising tenacity, detail, ethics, and a passion for uncovering the truth.

Congratulations on winning the Taco Kuiper Award, Marecia. Can you share with us a bit about your journey into journalism?

As a child, I always enjoyed reading books and magazines to keep up with what was happening in the world. From a young age, I’ve been very inquisitive and was known in my family as the one who repeatedly asked people questions. With a love for reading, came a love for writing. I would write my own little stories at home and keep a journal. In primary school, I was an author for my school’s In Touch magazine which furthered my love for writing.

I’ve also always been a people person and enjoy listening to others. Moving into journalism was an organic decision for me at school, and I decided that that was what I wanted to pursue. After matriculating in 2015, I obtained a bachelor’s degree in Language and Culture and an honours degree in Journalism at Stellenbosch University.

In the heart of the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, I started working as an intern at GroundUp News. The following year they offered me a permanent job as a news reporter. The stories I write mainly focus on education, access to housing and basic services, social grants, and the judiciary.

“Journalism is as much about the people behind the stories as it is about the stories themselves.”

What were some of the challenges you faced as a young journalist in a field that often requires significant experience and credibility?

Upon entering this industry, I soon learned that experience and being widely-known usually speaks the loudest.

Building trust with sources in certain communities also has its challenges. It takes time and persistence to convince people to open up, especially in communities where there’s scepticism toward the media. Then there’s managing the personal impact of covering distressing or traumatic events while maintaining professionalism. This industry has the potential to negatively impact your mental well-being, which is why it’s vital to prioritise your mental health.

But despite these challenges, they’ve also been opportunities to grow. They’ve pushed me to sharpen my skills, become more resilient, and find creative ways to share stories that matter. I’ve learned that the best way to solidify credibility is to be unbiased and impartial in your reporting.

What were some of the biggest obstacles you encountered while investigating the Thabo Bester prison escape saga? How did you overcome them?

One of the main obstacles was getting straight answers from some governmental departments involved in the investigation. Soon after I published the first two stories calling into question the circumstances surrounding the fire, we were stonewalled by the Department of Correctional Services.

The South African Police Service also did not always provide us with the detailed responses we needed. When seeking answers from G4S, which runs the Mangaung Correctional Centre, we were told that they were bound by confidentiality clauses and that we needed to speak to the DCS (which had already stonewalled us). We were able to work around this by speaking to provincial departments and getting hold of crucial court documents which helped us fill in the blanks of the escape. Trustworthy sources close to the story, and those who personally knew the main characters involved, also helped us with the information state institutions failed to provide us with.

“This industry has the potential to negatively impact your mental well-being, which is why it’s vital to prioritise your mental health.”

Were there any moments during your investigation when you felt particularly at risk or faced threats due to the nature of the story?

Thankfully, not. But we were aware that once we started doing TV interviews, we were no longer just names on a byline. Those involved in the escape could now see what we looked like. Because of this, we became mindful of our movements and took our safety a lot more seriously than we previously did.

Investigative journalism often requires digging deep and sometimes going against powerful interests. What qualities do you think are essential for someone to succeed in this field?

Firstly, tenacity is crucial. Investigative journalism demands persistence in the face of obstacles, whether it’s navigating bureaucratic red tape or facing pushback from powerful figures. You have to be willing to dig deep and ask tough questions.

Secondly, a keen eye for detail and accuracy is vital. Every piece of information you uncover must be meticulously verified and cross-checked. One small mistake can undermine the entire credibility of your investigation, so being meticulous is paramount.

Thirdly, ethical integrity is foundational. In a field where you may uncover sensitive information or expose wrongdoing, maintaining ethical standards is essential. This includes protecting sources, balanced and fair reporting, and ensuring your work serves the public interest.

Throughout all of this, you need to have a passion for uncovering the truth.

“Accuracy is non-negotiable in investigative journalism.”

How do you balance the need for thorough investigation with the ethical considerations of reporting sensitive information?

Investigative journalism does feel as if you’re walking a tightrope. On the one hand, there’s the pursuit of uncovering the full story, which often requires digging into sensitive details and sometimes challenging powerful interests. On the other hand, there’s a responsibility to handle that information ethically and responsibly.

Given the impact an investigative piece will have, I need to verify facts, seek different perspectives, and ensure that the information published in the article is accurate. As a journalist, the Press Code is my guideline for ethical reporting. That often means making tough calls on what information should be included or withheld, how to frame a story sensitively, and being prepared to face any consequences of my reporting. My goal is to uphold the highest standards of integrity while fulfilling my duty as a journalist to keep the public informed and uphold accountability in governance.

Can you share some tips or best practices for aspiring investigative journalists who are looking to uncover the truth in their own stories?

Be prepared to dig deep and don’t settle for the surface. Dive into research, comb through documents, and follow every lead—even the ones that seem insignificant at first.

It’s also important to build trust. Establishing relationships with sources is key, so cultivate trust by being transparent, respectful, and always honouring confidentiality when needed.

Investigations can hit roadblocks and often take months to complete, so stay persistent and be prepared to revisit leads and reassess angles. You’ll also need to double-check every fact, source, and piece of evidence. Accuracy is non-negotiable in investigative journalism.

Lastly, trust your gut!

“Stay curious, stay courageous, and above all, stay committed to the pursuit of truth.”

Finally, what advice would you give to young journalists who are just starting out and hope to make a significant impact through their work?

As you’re still finding your way, learn to ask for help and be teachable. Find what line of journalism you’re most passionate about, pursue it and then master your craft.

Build your contact list, knowing that anyone could potentially be a source in future. You also need to cultivate relationships built on trust and integrity. Journalism is as much about the people behind the stories as it is about the stories themselves. So respect the power of the narratives you share and always prioritise accuracy and fairness.

Lastly, never underestimate the impact of your work. Whether you’re reporting on local issues in a small community or global events, remember that journalism has the power to inform, inspire, and provoke change. So stay curious, stay courageous, and above all, stay committed to the pursuit of truth.