FACTORY FARM: Are we prioritising profits over animal welfare and human health?

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: Ireland

Publishing organisation: Noteworthy launched in April 2019 as an online crowdfunded investigative platform that invites submissions from the Irish public for investigations and issues that have not received media attention. The public can submit story ideas via our website, social media or email, which are then assessed by the team. If suitable, a public proposal is launched to crowdfund the investigation.

We wanted to create a new platform for supporting important journalism, one where reporters and members of the public can team up to deliver the stories that matter. We were inspired in part by the emergence of similar community-engaged and/or funded platforms such as The Bureau Local in the UK, De Correspondent in the Netherlands and Revista 5W in Spain

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 2022-07-06

Language: English

Authors: Lead Reporter: Niall Sargent
Editor: Maria Delaney
Additional Reporting in Northern Ireland and the UK: Rory Winters, Luke Butterly & Tommy Greene (The Detail), and Ella
McSweeney (The Guardian)


Niall Sargent is a multimedia investigative reporter with investigative experience in two national media outlets, is the former editor of an online climate change news website, and has a background in intelligence and data analysis for Interpol. He has previously received funding from projects from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund and an investigative bursary from the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund.

Project description:

This investigation exposed – for the first time – suspected fraudulent activity and serious environmental impacts of the multi-million euro poultry industry on the island of island.

Niall conducted painstaking and detailed work into the little known cross-border manure trade. He showed how the border is exploited to subvert EU law and shield the negative by-products of intensive farming.

The series revealed fraudulent documents from a State agency were included in consent applications for poultry farms and that authorities are investigating falsification of documents submitted for poultry farm licences, with names of farmers used without permission on litter export contracts.

Impact reached:

The hours put in paid off as the impact of the investigation was immediate with reports featuring on BBC and RTÉ a few hours after publication. Politicians and environmental advocates on both sides of the border have called for further investigations by authorities following our reports.

The investigation won the awrd for Specialist Business Reporting of the Year at the prestigious Business Journalism Awards in Ireland, with Sargent beating out seasoned buiness reporters to win the award for this series.

Techniques/technologies used:

The long-form investigation blended a mix of data analysis, charts and mapping that took considerable time to produce, using a range of tools and software to present our findings in an easy and digestible format.

We conducted analysis of hundreds of planning files from various different jurisdictions in Ireland, using scraping software to formulate template criteria/data to download for each planning application. We then used OpenRefine to further formulate the datasets, eliminate duplicates and format for spellings of names and townlands. We then analysed the information in Google Sheets to determine trends, key cases studies and identify cases to examine in more detail and determine farmers to contact.

We also used a Google Sheets plug-in to generate the geo-coordinates of the address of the farms, matching this with the date that the farms received consent permissions to create mapping visualisations to show the concentration of farms per jurisdiction and the increase in the rate of farms built over a period of time. We used Flourish to create our maps.

We also pieced together data from hundreds of poultry farm planning applications – including ammonia assessments and air quality reports – in biodiversity-rich areas to chart the growth in poultry farms in Ireland and assess their cumulative impact on protected nature without proper environmental assessments. Again we used scraping software and google sheets to extract and analyse the information.

To delve deeper into individual cases and track progress with investigations being carried out by local and national authorities, we also sent over 75 Freedom of Information and Access to Information on the Environment requests, leading to the release of hundreds of records examined in painstaking detail. Where data was provided, it was often within reports, emails and pdf documents so we used Tabula to convert records into spreadsheet format.

Context about the project:

Access to Files and Data – Months of work went into compiling data and documentation to get to the heart of the issue as no details on any of the various investigations ongoing into fraud in the poultry industry were public at the time of our investigation, and the authorities involved would not publicly disclose any information, even to confirm that the investigations were ongoing. We had to use scraping tools to pool together farm applications, and narrow down the cases we wanted to examine in detail. Once we started to see trends emerging in the data, we knew where to look and the questions to ask, and then sent over 75 Freedom of Information and Access to Information on the Environment requests, leading to the release of hundreds of records examined in painstaking detail. This was painstaking work and required months of planning and execution.

Format of Data – While the final visuals used in the articles are crisp and clean, the raw data behind it was not so. Firstly, the data from each local authority on consent and planning files were stored in different database systems with different public interfaces, meaning that we needed to come up with different scraping rules for each. Another problem was that data was in various formats (excel, pdf, word) with numerous spelling errors. We used Tabula and OpenRefine to collate, correct, confirm and analyse the large datasets.

In addition, much of the key data and information that we were searching for was not scrapable and held within non-OCR pdf documents. This then required days of research time to read files – some of which were hundreds of pages long – and pick out key details.

Access to Sources – It is notoriously difficult in Ireland to get Irish farmers to speak to non-farming specialist media about controversial issues within their industry, making it a difficult task for us to find the right farmers to speak with for this investigation. On top of that, all farmer names in investigative files released to us were redacted. Then in order to find sources to confirm issues within the sector, we first had to go through all the planning records, combined with other files, to whittle down the number of farmers to contact. Sargent then went about contacting over 50 farmers, with a handful willing to speak to us.

Political Landscape – Both Governments on the island of Irish are very supportive of expansion of the poultry industry, while the industry itself is controlled by some of the world’s largest poultry producers.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

Other reporters can learn that perseverance is key when you are carrying out an investigation where there is virtually no information in the public domain and both industry and the authorities are unwilling to share information or may actively be trying to block your work.

Other journalists can also learn that both planning and patience are key when working with planning and consent documentation that is going to prove to be a critical component of your working investigation. Taking the time to brainstorm, plan and organise the types of data you want and why you need it in advance of searching for the information is key in order to help refine your investigative parameters, as well as cutting down on the amount of time you will need to set aside to design your scraping parameters, and analysis time when you have compiled the data.

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