Tag Archives: investigative journalism

Video: how a local website helped uncover police surveillance of muslim neighbourhoods

Cross-posted from Help Me Investigate

The Stirrer was an independent news website in Birmingham that investigated a number of local issues in collaboration with local people. One investigation in particular – into the employment of CCTV cameras in largely muslim areas of the city without consultation – was picked up by The Guardian’s Paul Lewis, who discovered its roots in anti-terrorism funds.

The coverage led to an investigation into claims of police misleading councillors, and the eventual halting of the scheme.

As part of a series of interviews for Help Me Investigate, founder Adrian Goldberg – who now presents ‘5 live Investigates‘ and a daily show on BBC Radio WM – talks about his experiences of running the site and how the story evolved from a user’s tip-off.

Video: Heather Brooke’s tips on investigating, and using the FOI and Data Protection Acts

The following 3 videos first appeared on the Help Me Investigate blog, Help Me Investigate: Health and Help Me Investigate: Welfare. I thought I’d collect them together here too. As always, these are published under a Creative Commons licence, so you are welcome to re-use, edit and combine with other video, with attribution (and a link!).

First, Heather Brooke’s tips for starting to investigate public bodies:

Her advice on investigating health, welfare and crime:

And on using the Data Protection Act:

Moving away from ‘the story’: 5 roles of an online investigations team

The online investigation team: curation editor, multimedia editor, data journalist, community manager, editor

In almost a decade of teaching online journalism I repeatedly come up against the same two problems:

  • people who are so wedded to the idea of the self-contained ‘story’ that they struggle to create journalism outside of that (e.g. the journalism of linking, liveblogging, updating, explaining, or saying what they don’t know);
  • and people stuck in the habit of churning out easy-win articles rather than investing a longer-term effort in something of depth.

Until now I’ve addressed these problems largely through teaching and individual feedback. But for the next 3 months I’ll be trying a new way of organising students that hopes to address those two problems. As always, I thought I’d share it here to see what you think.

Roles in a team: moving from churnalism to depth

Here’s what I’m trying (for context: this is on an undergraduate module at Birmingham City University):

Students are allocated one of 5 roles within a group, investigating a particular public interest question. They investigate that for 6 weeks, at which point they are rotated to a different role and a new investigation (I’m weighing up whether to have some sort of job interview at that point).

The group format allows – I hope – for something interesting to happen: students are not under pressure to deliver ‘stories’, but instead blog about their investigation, as explained below. They are still learning newsgathering techniques, and production techniques, but the team structure makes these explicitly different to those that they would learn elsewhere.

The hope is that it will be much more difficult for them to just transfer print-style stories online, or to reach for he-said/she-said sources to fill the space between ads. With only one story to focus on, students should be forced to engage more, to do deeper and deeper into an issue, and to be more creative in how they communicate what they find out.

(It’s interesting to note that at least one news organisation is attempting something similar with a restructuring late last year)

Only one member of the team is primarily concerned with the story, and that is the editor:

The Editor (ED)

It is the editor’s role to identify what exactly the story is that the team is pursuing, and plan how the resources of the team should be best employed in pursuing that. It will help if they form the story as a hypothesis to be tested by the team gathering evidence – following Mark Lee Hunter’s story based inquiry method (PDF).

Qualities needed and developed by the editor include:

  • A nose for a story
  • Project management skills
  • Newswriting – the ability to communicate a story effectively
This post on Poynter is a good introduction to the personal skills needed for the role.

The Community Manager (CM)

The community manager’s focus is on the communities affected by the story being pursued. They should be engaging regularly with those communities – contributing to forums, having conversations with members on Twitter; following updates on Facebook; attending real world events; commenting on blogs or photo/video sharing sites, and so on.

They are the two-way channel between that community and the news team: feeding leads from the community to the editor, and taking a lead from the editor in finding contacts from the community (experts, case studies, witnesses).

Qualities needed and developed by the community manager include:

  • Interpersonal skills – the ability to listen to and communicate with different people
  • A nose for a story
  • Contacts in the community
  • Social network research skills – the ability to find sources and communities online

6 steps to get started in community management can be found in this follow-up post.

The Data Journalist (DJ)

While the community manager is focused on people, the data journalist is focused on documentation: datasets, reports, documents, regulations, and anything that frames the story being pursued.

It is their role to find that documentation – and to make sense of it. This is a key role because stories often come from signs being ignored (data) or regulations being ignored (documents).

Qualities needed and developed by the data journalist include:

  • Research skills – advanced online search and use of libraries
  • Analysis skills – such as using spreadsheets
  • Ability to decipher jargon – often by accessing experts (the CM can help)

Here’s a step by step on how to get started as a data journalist.

The Multimedia Journalist (MMJ)

The multimedia journalist is focused on the sights, sounds and people that bring a story to life. In an investigation, these will typically be the ‘victims’ and the ‘targets’.

They will film interviews with case studies; organise podcasts where various parties play the story out; collect galleries of images to illustrate the reality behind the words.

They will work closely with the CM as their roles can overlap, especially when accessing sources. The difference is that the CM is concerned with a larger quantity of interactions and information; the MM is concerned with quality: much fewer interactions and richer detail.

Qualities needed and developed by the MMJ include:

  • Ability to find sources: experts, witnesses, case studies
  • Technical skills: composition; filming or recording; editing
  • Planning: pre-interviewing, research, booking kit

The Curation Journalist (CJ)

(This was called Network Aggregator in an earlier version of this post) The CJ is the person who keeps the site ticking over while the rest of the team is working on the bigger story.

They publish regular links to related stories around the country. They are also the person who provides the wider context of that story: what else is happening in that field or around that issue; are similar issues arising in other places around the country. Typical content includes backgrounders, explainers, and updates from around the world.

This is the least demanding of the roles, so they should also be available to support other members of the team when required, following up minor leads on related stories. They should not be ‘just linking’, but getting original stories too, particularly by ‘joining the dots’ on information coming in.

Qualities needed and developed by the CJ include:

  • Information management – following as many feeds, newsletters and other relevant soures of information
  • Wide range of contacts – speaking to the usual suspects regularly to get a feel for the pulse of the issue/sector
  • Ability to turn around copy quickly

There’s a post on 7 ways to follow a field as a network aggregator (or any other journalist) on Help Me Investigate.

And here’s a post on ‘How to be a curation editor‘.

Examples of network aggregation in action:

  • Blogs like Created In Birmingham regularly round up the latest links to events and other reports in their field. See also The Guardian’s PDA Newsbucket.
  • John Grayson’s post on G4S uses a topical issue as the angle into a detailed backgrounder on the company with copious links to charity reports, politicians’ statements, articles in the media, research projects, and more.
  • This post by Diary of a Benefit Scrounger is the most creative and powerful example I’ve yet seen. It combines dozens of links to stories of treatment of benefit claimants and protestors, and to detail on various welfare schemes, to compile a first-person ‘story’.

Publish regular pieces that come together in a larger story

If this works, I’m hoping students will produce different types of content on their way to that ‘big story’, as follows:

  • Linkblogging – simple posts that link to related articles elsewhere with a key quote (rather than wasting resources rewriting them)
  • Profiles of key community members
  • Backgrounders and explainers on key issues
  • Interviews with experts, case studies and witnesses, published individually first, then edited together later
  • Aggregation and curation – pulling together a gallery of images, for example; or key tweets on an issue; or key facts on a particular area (who, what, where, when, how); or rounding up an event or discussion
  • Datablogging – finding and publishing key datasets and documents and translating them/pulling out key points for a wider audience.
  • The story so far – taking users on a journey of what facts have been discovered, and what remains to be done.

You can read more on the expectations of each role in this document. And there’s a diagram indicating how group members might interact at the top of this article.

What will make the difference is how disciplined the editor is in ensuring that their team keeps moving towards the ultimate aim, and that they can combine the different parts into a significant whole.

UPDATE: A commenter has asked about the end result. Here’s how it’s explained to students:

“At an identified point, the Editor will need to organise his or her team to bring those ingredients into that bigger story – and it may be told in different ways, for example:

  • A longform text narrative with links to the source material and embedded multimedia
  • An edited multimedia package with links to source material in the accompanying description
  • A map made with Google Maps, Fusion Tables or another tool, where pins include images or video, and links to each story”

If you’ve any suggestions or experiences on how this might work better, I’d very much welcome them.

Moving away from ‘the story': 5 roles of an online investigations team

In almost a decade of teaching online journalism I repeatedly come up against the same two problems:

  • people who are so wedded to the idea of the self-contained ‘story’ that they struggle to create journalism outside of that (e.g. the journalism of linking, liveblogging, updating, explaining, or saying what they don’t know);
  • and people stuck in the habit of churning out easy-win articles rather than investing a longer-term effort in something of depth.

Until now I’ve addressed these problems largely through teaching and individual feedback. But for the next 3 months I’ll be trying a new way of organising students that hopes to address those two problems. As always, I thought I’d share it here to see what you think.

Roles in a team: moving from churnalism to depth

Here’s what I’m trying (for context: this is on an undergraduate module at Birmingham City University):

Students are allocated one of 5 roles within a group, investigating a particular public interest question. They investigate that for 6 weeks, at which point they are rotated to a different role and a new investigation (I’m weighing up whether to have some sort of job interview at that point).

The group format allows – I hope – for something interesting to happen: students are not under pressure to deliver ‘stories’, but instead blog about their investigation, as explained below. They are still learning newsgathering techniques, and production techniques, but the team structure makes these explicitly different to those that they would learn elsewhere.

The hope is that it will be much more difficult for them to just transfer print-style stories online, or to reach for he-said/she-said sources to fill the space between ads. With only one story to focus on, students should be forced to engage more, to do deeper and deeper into an issue, and to be more creative in how they communicate what they find out.

(It’s interesting to note that at least one news organisation is attempting something similar with a restructuring late last year)

Only one member of the team is primarily concerned with the story, and that is the editor:

The Editor (ED)

It is the editor’s role to identify what exactly the story is that the team is pursuing, and plan how the resources of the team should be best employed in pursuing that. It will help if they form the story as a hypothesis to be tested by the team gathering evidence – following Mark Lee Hunter’s story based inquiry method (PDF).

Qualities needed and developed by the editor include:

  • A nose for a story
  • Project management skills
  • Newswriting – the ability to communicate a story effectively
This post on Poynter is a good introduction to the personal skills needed for the role.

The Community Manager (CM)

The community manager’s focus is on the communities affected by the story being pursued. They should be engaging regularly with those communities – contributing to forums, having conversations with members on Twitter; following updates on Facebook; attending real world events; commenting on blogs or photo/video sharing sites, and so on.

They are the two-way channel between that community and the news team: feeding leads from the community to the editor, and taking a lead from the editor in finding contacts from the community (experts, case studies, witnesses).

Qualities needed and developed by the community manager include:

  • Interpersonal skills – the ability to listen to and communicate with different people
  • A nose for a story
  • Contacts in the community
  • Social network research skills – the ability to find sources and communities online

6 steps to get started in community management can be found in this follow-up post.

The Data Journalist (DJ)

While the community manager is focused on people, the data journalist is focused on documentation: datasets, reports, documents, regulations, and anything that frames the story being pursued.

It is their role to find that documentation – and to make sense of it. This is a key role because stories often come from signs being ignored (data) or regulations being ignored (documents).

Qualities needed and developed by the data journalist include:

  • Research skills – advanced online search and use of libraries
  • Analysis skills – such as using spreadsheets
  • Ability to decipher jargon – often by accessing experts (the CM can help)

Here’s a step by step on how to get started as a data journalist.

The Multimedia Journalist (MMJ)

The multimedia journalist is focused on the sights, sounds and people that bring a story to life. In an investigation, these will typically be the ‘victims’ and the ‘targets’.

They will film interviews with case studies; organise podcasts where various parties play the story out; collect galleries of images to illustrate the reality behind the words.

They will work closely with the CM as their roles can overlap, especially when accessing sources. The difference is that the CM is concerned with a larger quantity of interactions and information; the MM is concerned with quality: much fewer interactions and richer detail.

Qualities needed and developed by the MMJ include:

  • Ability to find sources: experts, witnesses, case studies
  • Technical skills: composition; filming or recording; editing
  • Planning: pre-interviewing, research, booking kit 

The Curation Journalist (CJ)

(This was called Network Aggregator in an earlier version of this post) The CJ is the person who keeps the site ticking over while the rest of the team is working on the bigger story.

They publish regular links to related stories around the country. They are also the person who provides the wider context of that story: what else is happening in that field or around that issue; are similar issues arising in other places around the country. Typical content includes backgrounders, explainers, and updates from around the world.

This is the least demanding of the roles, so they should also be available to support other members of the team when required, following up minor leads on related stories. They should not be ‘just linking’, but getting original stories too, particularly by ‘joining the dots’ on information coming in.

Qualities needed and developed by the CJ include:

  • Information management – following as many feeds, newsletters and other relevant soures of information
  • Wide range of contacts – speaking to the usual suspects regularly to get a feel for the pulse of the issue/sector
  • Ability to turn around copy quickly

There’s a post on 7 ways to follow a field as a network aggregator (or any other journalist) on Help Me Investigate.

And here’s a post on ‘How to be a network journalist‘.

Examples of network aggregation in action:

  • Blogs like Created In Birmingham regularly round up the latest links to events and other reports in their field. See also The Guardian’s PDA Newsbucket.
  • John Grayson’s post on G4S uses a topical issue as the angle into a detailed backgrounder on the company with copious links to charity reports, politicians’ statements, articles in the media, research projects, and more.
  • This post by Diary of a Benefit Scrounger is the most creative and powerful example I’ve yet seen. It combines dozens of links to stories of treatment of benefit claimants and protestors, and to detail on various welfare schemes, to compile a first-person ‘story’.

Publish regular pieces that come together in a larger story

If this works, I’m hoping students will produce different types of content on their way to that ‘big story’, as follows:

  • Linkblogging – simple posts that link to related articles elsewhere with a key quote (rather than wasting resources rewriting them)
  • Profiles of key community members
  • Backgrounders and explainers on key issues
  • Interviews with experts, case studies and witnesses, published individually first, then edited together later
  • Aggregation and curation – pulling together a gallery of images, for example; or key tweets on an issue; or key facts on a particular area (who, what, where, when, how); or rounding up an event or discussion
  • Datablogging – finding and publishing key datasets and documents and translating them/pulling out key points for a wider audience.
  • The story so far – taking users on a journey of what facts have been discovered, and what remains to be done.

You can read more on the expectations of each role in this document. And there’s a diagram indicating how group members might interact below:

Investigations team flowchart

Investigations team flowchart

What will make the difference is how disciplined the editor is in ensuring that their team keeps moving towards the ultimate aim, and that they can combine the different parts into a significant whole.

UPDATE: A commenter has asked about the end result. Here’s how it’s explained to students:

“At an identified point, the Editor will need to organise his or her team to bring those ingredients into that bigger story – and it may be told in different ways, for example:

  • A longform text narrative with links to the source material and embedded multimedia
  • An edited multimedia package with links to source material in the accompanying description
  • A map made with Google Maps, Fusion Tables or another tool, where pins include images or video, and links to each story”

If you’ve any suggestions or experiences on how this might work better, I’d very much welcome them.

VIDEO from the Global Investigative Journalism Conference

Global Investigative Journalism Conference logo

At the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Kiev earlier this year I interviewed four individuals whose work I admire: Stephen Grey (talking about internet security for journalists), Luuk Sengers and Mark Lee Hunter (on organising your investigation), and Bo Elkjaer (on investigating networks).

I’ve been publishing these videos individually on the Help Me Investigate blog, but thought I would cross-publish them as a group here.

Here’s Mark Lee Hunter with his tips on gathering information before speaking to sources:

Stephen Grey on internet security considerations for journalists:

Luuk Sengers on organising your investigation:

And Bo Elkjaer on how he used computer technology to follow the money through network analysis:

A case study in crowdsourcing investigative journalism (part 4): The London Weekly

Continuing the serialisation of the research underpinning a new Help Me Investigate project, in this fourth part I describe how one particular investigation took shape. Previous parts are linked below:

Case study: the London Weekly investigation

In early 2010 Andy Brightwell and I conducted some research into one particular successful investigation on the site. The objective was to identify what had made the investigation successful – and how (or if) those conditions might be replicated for other investigations both on the site and elsewhere online.

The investigation chosen for the case study was ‘What do you know about The London Weekly?’ – an investigation into a free newspaper that was, the owners claimed (part of the investigation was to establish if the claim was a hoax), about to launch in London.

The people behind The London Weekly had made a number of claims about planned circulation, staffing and investment which went unchallenged in specialist media. Journalists Martin Stabe, James Ball and Judith Townend, however, wanted to dig deeper. So, after an exchange on Twitter, Judith logged onto Help Me Investigate and started an investigation.

A month later members of the investigation (most of whom were non-journalists) had unearthed a wealth of detail about the people behind The London Weekly and the facts behind their claims. Some of the information was reported in MediaWeek and The Guardian podcast Media Talk; some formed the basis for posts on James Ball’s blog, Journalism.co.uk and the Online Journalism Blog. Some has, for legal reasons, remained unpublished.

Methodology

Andrew Brightwell conducted a number of semi-structured interviews with contributors to the investigation. The sample was randomly selected but representative of the mix of contributors, who were categorised as either ‘alpha’ contributors (over 6 contributions), ‘active’ (2-6 contributions) and ‘lurkers’ (whose only contribution was to join the investigation). These interviews formed the qualitative basis for the research.

Complementing this data was quantitative information about users of the site as a whole. This was taken from two user surveys – one conducted when the site was three months’ old and another at 12 months – and analysis of analytics taken from the investigation (such as numbers and types of actions, frequency, etc.)

In the next part I explore some of the characteristics of a crowdsourced investigation and how these relate to the wider literature around crowdsourcing in general.

Crowdsourcing investigative journalism: a case study (part 3)

Continuing the serialisation of the research underpinning a new Help Me Investigate project, in this third part I describe how the focus of the site was shaped by the interests of its users and staff, and how site functionality was changed to react to user needs. I also identify some areas where the site could have been further developed and improved. (Part 1 is available here; Part 2 is here)

Reflections on the proof of concept phase

By the end of the 12 week proof of concept phase the site had also completed a number of investigations that were not ‘headline-makers’ but fulfilled the objective of informing users: in particular ‘Why is a new bus company allowed on an existing route with same number, but higher prices?’; ‘What is the tracking process for petitions handed in to Birmingham City Council?’ and ‘The DVLA and misrepresented number plates’

The site had also unearthed some promising information that could provide the basis for more stories, such as Birmingham City Council receiving over £160,000 in payments for vehicle removals; and ‘Which councils in the UK (that use Civil Enforcement) make the most from parking tickets?’ (as a byproduct, this also unearthed how well different councils responded to Freedom of Information requests#)

A number of news organisations expressed an interest in working with the site, but practical contributions to the site took place largely at an individual rather than organisational level. Journalist Tom Scotney, who was involved in one of the investigations, commented: “Get it right and you’re becoming part of an investigative team that’s bigger, more diverse and more skilled than any newsroom could ever be” (Scotney, 2009, n.p.) – but it was becoming clear that most journalists were not culturally prepared – or had the time – to engage with the site unless there was a story ‘ready made’ for them to use. Once there were stories to be had, however, they contributed a valuable role in writing those stories up, obtaining official reactions, and spreading visibility.

After 12 weeks the site had around 275 users (whose backgrounds ranged from journalism and web development to locally active citizens) and 71 investigations, exceeding project targets. It is difficult to measure ‘success’ or ‘failure’ but at least eight investigations had resulted in coherent stories, representing a success rate of at least 11%: the target figure before launch had been 1-5%. That figure rose to around 21% if other promising investigations were included, and the sample included recently initiated investigations which were yet to get off the ground.

‘Success’ was an interesting metric which deserves further elaboration. In his reflection on The Guardian’s crowdsourcing experiment, for example, developer Martin Belam (2011a, n.p.) noted a tendency to evaluate success “not purely editorially, but with a technology mindset in terms of the ‘100% – Achievement unlocked!’ games mechanic.”. In other words, success might be measured in terms of degrees of ‘completion’ rather than results.

In contrast, the newspaper’s journalist Paul Lewis saw success in terms of something other than pure percentages: getting 27,000 people to look at expense claims was, he felt, a successful outcome, regardless of the percentage of claims that those represented. And BBC Special Reports Editor Bella Hurrell – who oversaw a similar but less ambitious crowdsourcing project on the same subject on the broadcaster’s website, felt that they had also succeeded in genuine ‘public service journalism’ in the process (personal interview).

A third measure of success is noted by Belam – that of implementation and iteration (being able to improve the service based on how it is used):

“It demonstrated that as a team our tech guys could, in the space of around a week, get an application deployed into the cloud but appear integrated into our site, using a technology stack that was not our regular infrastructure.

“Secondly, it showed that as a business we could bring people together from editorial, design, technology and QA to deliver a rapid turnaround project in a multi-disciplinary way, based on a topical news story.

“And thirdly, we learned from and improved upon it.“ (Belam, 2010, n.p.)

A percentage ‘success’ rate of Help Me Investigate, then, represents a similar, ‘game-oriented’ perspective on the site, and it is important to draw on other frameworks to measure its success.

For example, it was clear that the site did very well in producing raw material for ‘journalism’, but it was less successful in generating more general civic information such as how to find out who owned a piece of land. Returning to the ideas of Actor-Network Theory outlined above, the behaviour of two principal actors – and one investigation – had a particular influence on this, and how the site more generally developed over time. Site user Neil Houston was an early adopter of the site and one of its heaviest contributors. His interest in interrogating data helped shape the path of many of the site’s most active investigations, which in turn set the editorial ‘tone’ of the site. This attracted users with similar interests to Neil, but may have discouraged others who did not – further research would be needed to establish this.

Likewise, while Birmingham City Council staff contributed to the site in its earliest days, when the council became the subject of an investigation staff’s involvement was actively discouraged (personal interview with contributor). This left the site short of particular expertise in answering civic questions.

At least one user commented that the site was very ‘FOI [Freedom Of Information request]-heavy’ and risked excluding users interested in different types of investigations, or who saw Freedom of Information requests as too difficult for them. This could be traced directly to the appointment of Heather Brooke as the site’s support journalist. Heather is a leading Freedom of Information activist and user of FOI requests: this was an enormous strength in supporting relevant investigations but it should also be recognised how that served to set the editorial tone of the site.

This narrowing of tone was addressed by bringing in a second support journalist with a consumer background: Colin Meek. There was also a strategic shift in community management which involved actively involving users with other investigations. As more users came onto the site these broadened into consumer, property and legal areas.

However, a further ‘actor’ then came into play: the legal and insurance systems. Due to the end of proof of concept funding and the associated legal insurance the team had to close investigations unrelated to the public sector as they left the site most vulnerable legally.

A final example of Actor-Network Theory in action was a difference between the intentions of the site designers and its users. The founders wanted Help Me Investigate to be a place for consensus, not discussion, but it was quickly apparent users did not want to have to go elsewhere to have their discussions. Users needed to – and did – have conversations around the updates that they posted.

The initial challenge-and-result model (breaking investigations down into challenges with entry fields for the subsequent results, which were required to include a link to the source of their information) was therefore changed very early on to challenge-and-update: people could now update without a link, simply to make a point about a previous result, or to explain their efforts in failing to obtain a result.

One of the challenges least likely to be accepted by users was to ‘Write the story up’. It seemed that those who knew the investigation had no need to write it up: the story existed in their heads. Instead it was either site staff or professional journalists who would normally write up the results. Similarly, when an investigation was complete, it required site staff to update the investigation description to include a link to any write-up. There was no evidence of a desire from users to ‘be a journalist’. Indeed, the overriding objective appeared rather to ‘be a citizen’.

In contrast, a challenge to write ‘the story so far’ seemed more appealing in investigations that had gathered data but no resolution as yet. The site founders underestimated the need for narrative in designing a site that allowed users to join investigations while they were in progress.

As was to be expected with a ‘proof of concept’ site (one testing whether an idea could work), there were a number of areas of frustration in the limitations of the site – and identification of areas of opportunity. When looking to crowdfund small amounts for an investigation, for example, there were no third party tools available that would allow this without going through a nonprofit organisation. And when an investigation involved a large crowdsourcing operation the connection to activity conducted on other platforms needed to be stronger so users could more easily see what needed doing (e.g. a live feed of changes to a Google spreadsheet, or documents bookmarked using Delicious).

Finally investigations often evolved into new questions but had to stay with an old title or risk losing the team and resources that had been built up. The option to ‘export’ an investigation team and resources into a fresh question/investigation was one possible future solution.

‘Failure for free’ was part of the design of the site in order to allow investigations to succeed on the efforts of its members rather than as a result of any top-down editorial agenda – although naturally journalist users would concentrate their efforts on the most newsworthy investigations. In practice it was hard to ‘let failure happen’, especially when almost all investigations had some public interest value.

Although the failure itself was not an issue (and indeed the failure rate lower than expected), a ‘safety net’ was needed that would more proactively suggest ways investigators could make their investigation a success, including features such as investigation ‘mentors’ who could pass on their experience; ‘expiry dates’ on challenges with reminders; improved ability to find other investigators with relevant skills or experience; a ‘sandbox’ investigation for new users to find their feet; and developing a metric to identify successful and failing investigations.

Communication was central to successful investigations and two areas required more attention: staff time in pursuing communication with users; and technical infrastructure to automate and facilitate communication (such as alerts to new updates or the ability to mail all investigation members)

The much-feared legal issues threatened by the site did not particularly materialise. Out of over 70 investigations in the first 12 weeks, only four needed rephrasing to avoid being potentially libellous. Two involved minor tweaks; the other two were more significant, partly because of a related need for clarity in the question.

Individual updates within investigations, which were post-moderated, presented even less of a legal problem. Only two updates were referred for legal advice, and only one of those rephrased. One was flagged and removed because it was ‘flamey’ and did not contribute to the investigation.

There was a lack of involvement by users across investigations. Users tended to stick to their own investigation and the idea of ‘helping another so they help you’ did not take root. Further research is needed to see if there was a power law distribution at work here – often seen on the internet – of a few people being involved in lots of investigations, most being involved in one, and a steep upward curve between.

In the next part I look at one particular investigation in an attempt to identify the qualities that made it successful

If you want to get involved in the latest Help Me Investigate project, get in touch on paul@helpmeinvestigate.com

Crowdsourcing investigative journalism: a case study (part 1)

As I begin on a new Help Me Investigate project, I thought it was a good time to share some research I conducted into the first year of the site, and the key factors in how that project tried to crowdsource investigative and watchdog journalism.

The findings of this research have been key to the development of this new project. They also form the basis of a chapter in the book Face The Future, and another due to be published in the Handbook of Online Journalism next year (not to be confused with my own Online Journalism Handbook). Here’s the report:

In both academic and mainstream literature about the world wide web, one theme consistently recurs: the lowering of the barrier allowing individuals to collaborate in pursuit of a common goal. Whether it is creating the world’s biggest encyclopedia (Lih, 2009), spreading news about a protest (Morozov, 2011) or tracking down a stolen phone (Shirky, 2008), the rise of the network has seen a decline in the role of the formal organisation, including news organisations.

Two examples of this phenomenon were identified while researching a book chapter on investigative journalism and blogs (De Burgh, 2008). The first was an experiment by The Florida News Press: when it started receiving calls from readers complaining about high water and sewage connection charges for newly constructed homes the newspaper, short on in-house resources to investigate the leads, decided to ask their readers to help. The result is by now familiar as a textbook example of “crowdsourcing” – outsourcing a project to ‘the crowd’ or what Brogan & Smith (2009, p136) describe as “the ability to have access to many people at a time and to have them perform one small task each”:

“Readers spontaneously organized their own investigations: Retired engineers analyzed blueprints, accountants pored over balance sheets, and an inside whistle-blower leaked documents showing evidence of bid-rigging.” (Howe, 2006a)

The second example concerned contaminated pet food in the US, and did not involve a mainstream news organisation. In fact, it was frustration with poor mainstream ‘churnalism’ (see Davies, 2009) that motivated bloggers and internet users to start digging into the story. The resulting output from dozens of blogs ranged from useful information for pet owners and the latest news to the compilation of a database that suggested the official numbers of pet deaths recorded by the US Food and Drug Administration was short by several thousand. One site, Itchmo.com, became so popular that it was banned in China, the source of the pet food in question.

What was striking about both examples was not simply that people could organise to produce investigative journalism, but that this practice of ‘crowdsourcing’ had two key qualities that were particularly relevant to journalism’s role in a democracy. The first was engagement: in the case of the News-Press for six weeks the story generated more traffic to its website than “ever before, excepting hurricanes” (Weise, 2007). Given that investigative journalism often concerns very ‘dry’ subject matter that has to be made appealing to a wider audience, these figures were surprising – and encouraging for publishers.

The second quality was subject: the contaminated pet food story was, in terms of mainstream news values, unfashionable and unjustifiable in terms of investment of resources. It appeared that the crowdsourcing model of investigation might provide a way to investigate stories which were in the public interest but which commercial and public service news organisations would not consider worth their time. More broadly, research on crowdsourcing more generally suggested that it worked “best in areas that are not core to your product or central to your business model” (Tapscott and Williams, 2006, p82).

Investigative journalism: its history and discourses

DeBurgh (2008, p10) defines investigative journalism as “distinct from apparently similar work [of discovering truth and identifying lapses from it] done by police, lawyers and auditors and regulatory bodies in that it is not limited as to target, not legally founded and usually earns money for media publishers.” The term is notoriously problematic and contested: some argue that all journalism is investigative, or that the recent popularity of the term indicates the failure of ‘normal’ journalism to maintain investigative standards. This contestation is a symptom of the various factors underlying the growth of the genre, which range from journalists’ own sense of a democratic role, to professional ambition and publishers’ commercial and marketing objectives.

More recently investigative journalism has been used to defend traditional print journalism against online publishing, with publishers arguing that true investigative journalism cannot be maintained without the resources of a print operation. This position has become harder to defend as online-only operations and journalists have won increasing numbers of awards for their investigative work – Clare Sambrook in the UK and VoiceOfSanDiego.com and Talking Points Memo in the US are three examples – while new organisations have been established to pursue investigations without any associated print operation including Canada’s OpenFile; the UK’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism and a number of bodies in the US such as ProPublica, The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, and the Huffington Post’s investigative unit.

In addition, computer technology has started to play an increasingly important role in print investigative journalism: Stephen Grey’s investigation into the CIA’s ‘extraordinary rendition’ programme (Grey, 2006) was facilitated by the use of software such as Analyst’s Notebook, which allowed him to analyse large amounts of flight data and identify leads. The Telegraph’s investigation into MPs’ expenses was made possible by digitisation of data and the ability to store large amounts on a small memory stick. And newspapers around the world collaborated with the Wikileaks website to analyse ‘warlogs’ from Iraq and Afghanistan, and hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables. More broadly the success of Wikipedia inspired a raft of examples of ‘Wiki journalism’ where users were invited to contribute to editorial coverage of a particular issue or field, with varying degrees of success.

Meanwhile, investigative journalists such as The Guardian’s Paul Lewis have been exploring a more informal form of crowdsourcing, working with online communities to break stories including the role of police in the death of newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson; the existence of undercover agents in the environmental protest movement; and the death of a man being deported to Angola (Belam, 2011b).

This is part of a broader move to networked journalism explored by Charlie Beckett (2008):

“In a world of ever-increasing media manipulation by government and business, it is even more important for investigative journalists to use technology and connectivity to reveal hidden truths. Networked journalists are open, interactive and share the process. Instead of gatekeepers they are facilitators: the public become co-producers. Networked journalists “are ‘medium agnostic’ and ‘story-centric’”. The process is faster and the information sticks around longer.” (2008, p147)

As one of its best-known practitioners Paul Lewis talks particularly of the role of technology in his investigations – specifically Twitter – but also the importance of the crowd itself and journalistic method:

“A crucial factor that makes crowd-sourcing a success [was that] there was a reason for people to help, in this case a perceived sense of injustice and that the official version of events did not tally with the truth. Six days after Tomlinson’s death, Paul had twenty reliable witnesses who could be placed on a map at the time of the incident – and only one of them had come from the traditional journalistic tool of a contact number in his notebook.” (Belam, 2011b)

A further key skill identified by Lewis is listening to the crowd – although he sounds a note of caution in its vulnerability to deliberately placed misinformation, and the need for verification.

“Crowd-sourcing doesn’t always work [...] The most common thing is that you try, and you don’t find the information you want [...] The pattern of movement of information on the internet is something journalists need to get their heads around. Individuals on the web in a crowd seem to behave like a flock of starlings – and you can’t control their direction.” (Belam, 2011b)

Conceptualising Help Me Investigate

The first plans for Help Me Investigate were made in 2008 and were further developed over the next 18 months. They built on research into crowdsourced investigative journalism, as well as other research into online journalism and community management. In particular the project sought to explore concepts of “P2P journalism” which enables “more engaged interaction between and amongst users” (Bruns, 2005, p120, emphasis in original) and of “produsage”, whose affordances included probabilistic problem solving, granular tasks, equipotentiality, and shared content (Bruns, 2008, p19).

A key feature in this was the ownership of the news agenda by users themselves (who could be either members of the public or journalists). This was partly for reasons identified above in research into the crowdsourced investigation into contaminated pet food. It would allow the site to identify questions that would not be considered viable for investigation within a traditional newsroom; but the feature was also implemented because ‘ownership’ was a key area of contestation identified within crowdsourcing research (Lih, 2009; Benkler, 2006; Surowiecki, 2005) – ‘outsourcing’ a project to a group of people raises obvious issues regarding claims of authorship, direction and benefits (Bruns, 2005).

These issues were considered carefully by the founders. The site adopted a user interface with three main modes of navigation for investigations: most-recent-top; most popular (those investigations with the most members); and two ‘featured’ investigations chosen by site staff: these were chosen on the basis that they were the most interesting editorially, or because they were attracting particular interest and activity from users at that moment. There was therefore an editorial role, but this was limited to only two of the 18 investigations listed on the ‘Investigations’ page, and was at least partly guided by user activity.

In addition there were further pages where users could explore investigations through different criteria such as those investigations that had been completed, or those investigations with particular tags (e.g. ‘environment’, ‘Bristol’, ‘FOI’, etc.).

A second feature of the site was that ‘journalism’ was intended to be a by-product: the investigation process itself was the primary objective, which would inform users, as research suggested that if users were to be attracted to the site, it must perform the function that they needed it to (Porter, 2008), which was – as became apparent – one of project management. The ‘problem’ that the site was attempting to ‘solve’ needed to be user-centric rather than publisher-centric: ‘telling stories’ would clearly be lower down the priority list for users than it was for journalists and publishers. Of higher priority were the need to break down a question into manageable pieces; find others to investigate those with; and get answers. This was eventually summarised in the strapline to the site: “Connect, mobilise, uncover”.

Thirdly, there was a decision to use ‘game mechanics’ that would make the process of investigation inherently rewarding. As the site and its users grew, the interface was changed so that challenges started on the left hand side of the screen, coloured red, then moved to the middle when accepted (the colour changing to amber), and finally to the right column when complete (now with green border and tick icon). This made it easier to see at a glance what needed doing and what had been achieved, and also introduced a level of innate satisfaction in the task. Users, the idea went, might grow to like to feeling of moving those little blocks across the screen, and the positive feedback (see Graham, 2010 and Dondlinger, 2007) provided by the interface.

Similar techniques were coincidentally explored at the same time by The Guardian’s MPs’ expenses app (Bradshaw, 2009). This provided an interface for users to investigate MP expense claim forms that used many conventions of game design, including a ‘progress bar’, leaderboards, and button-based interfaces. A second iteration of the app – created when a second batch of claim forms were released – saw a redesigned interface based on a stronger emphasis on positive feedback. As developer Martin Belam explains (2011a):

“When a second batch of documents were released, the team working on the app broke them down into much smaller assignments. That meant it was easier for a small contribution to push the totals along, and we didn’t get bogged down with the inertia of visibly seeing that there was a lot of documents still to process.

“By breaking it down into those smaller tasks, and staggering their start time, you concentrated all of the people taking part on one goal at a time. They could therefore see the progress dial for that individual goal move much faster than if you only showed the progress across the whole set of documents.”

These game mechanics are not limited to games: many social networking sites have borrowed the conventions to provide similar positive feedback to users. Jon Hickman (2010, p2) describes how Help Me Investigate uses these genre codes and conventions:

“In the same way that Twitter records numbers of “followers”, “tweets”, “following” and “listed”, Help Me Investigate records the number of “things” which the user is currently involved in investigating, plus the number of “challenges”, “updates” and “completed investigations” they have to their credit. In both Twitter and Help Me Investigate these labels have a mechanistic function: they act as hyperlinks to more information related to the user’s profile. They can also be considered culturally as symbolic references to the user’s social value to the network – they give a number and weight to the level of activity the user has achieved, and so can be used in informal ranking of the user’s worth, importance and usefulness within the network.” (2010, p8)

This was indeed the aim of the site design, and was related to a further aim of the site: to allow users to build ‘social capital’ within and through the site: users could add links to web presences and Twitter accounts, as well as add biographies and ‘tag’ themselves. They were also ranked in a ‘Most active’ table; and each investigation had its own graph of user activity. This meant that users might use the site not simply for information-gathering reasons, but also for reputation building ones, a characteristic of open source communities identified by Bruns (2005) and Leadbeater (2008) among others.

There were plans to take these ideas much further which were shelved during the proof of concept phase as the team concentrated on core functionality. For example, it was clear that users needed to be able to give other users praise for positive contributions, and they used the ‘update feature’ to do so. A more intuitive function allowing users to give a ‘thumbs up’ to a contribution would have made this easier, and also provided a way to establish the reputation of individual users, and encourage further use.

Another feature of the site’s construction was a networked rather than centralised design. The bid document to 4iP proposed to aggregate users’ material:

“via RSS and providing support to get users onto use web-based services. While the technology will facilitate community creation around investigations, the core strategy will be community-driven, ‘recruiting’ and supporting alpha users who can drive the site and community forward.”

Again, this aggregation functionality was dropped as part of focusing the initial version of the site. However, the basic principle of working within a network was retained, with many investigations including a challenge to blog about progress on other sites, or use external social networks to find possible contributors. The site included guidance on using tools elsewhere on the web, and many investigations linked to users’ blog posts.

In the second part I discuss the building of the site and reflections on the site’s initial few months.

Investigating Mubenga’s death (How “citizen journalism” aided two major Guardian scoops part 3)

This is the final part of a guest post by Paul Lewis that originally appeared in the book Investigative Journalism: Dead or Alive? You can read the introduction here and the second part – on the investigation of Ian Tomlinson’s death – here.

Mubenga’s death had been similarly “public”, occurring on a British Airways commercial flight to Angola surrounded by passengers. As with Tomlinson, there was a misleading account of the death put out by the authorities, which we felt passengers may wish to contest. Within days, open journalism established that Mubenga had been handcuffed and heavily restrained by guards from the private security firm G4S. He had been complaining of breathing prior to his collapse. After the investigation was published, three G4S guards were arrested and, at the time of writing, remained on bail and under investigation by the Met’s homicide unit.

Our strategy for finding out more about Mubenga’s death centred on two approaches, both aided by Twitter. The BA flight, which had been due to depart on 12 October, was postponed for 24 hours, and by the time we began investigating the following day the passengers had left Heathrow and were on route to Angola’s capital, Luanda. Raising our interest in the story via Twitter, we asked for help in locating someone who could visit the airport to interview disembarking passengers.

A freelance did just that, and managed to speak to one who said he had seen three security guards forcibly restrain Mubenga in his seat. We instantly shared that breakthrough, in the hope that it would encourage more passengers to come forward. At the same time we were publishing what we knew about the case, while being candidly open about what we did not know.

Hence the very article, published before any passengers had been tracked down, stated: “There was no reliable information about what led to the man’s death of how he became unwell.” It added, perhaps controversially: “In the past, the Home Office’s deportation policy has proved highly controversial.”

The tone was necessarily speculative, and designed to encourage witnesses to come forward. So too were the tweets. “Man dies on Angolan flight as UK tries to deport him. This story could be v big,” said one.

This articles and tweets, contained relevant search-able terms – such as the flight number – so that they could serve as online magnets, easily discoverable for any passengers with important information and access to the internet. Another tweet said: “Please contact me if you were on BA flight 77 to Angola – or know the man in this story.”

One reply came from Twitter user @mlgerstmann, a passenger on the flight who felt inappropriate force was used against Mubenga. He had come across the tweet – and then read the article – after basic Google searches. “I was also there on BA77 and the man was begging for help and I now feel so guilty I did nothing,” he tweeted.

Within hours, his shocking account of Mubenga’s death was published alongside several other passengers who had found us via the internet. An interactive graphic of the seating arrangements on the aircraft was created, enabling users to listen to audio clips of the passengers give personal accounts of what they had seen.

How verification was crucial

As with the Tomlinson investigation, verification, something paid journalists do better than their volunteer counterparts, was crucial. The fact the passengers had disseminated to remote parts of Africa – @mlgerstmann was on an oil-rig – explains why the only way to contact them was through an open, Twitter-driven investigation.

But this methodology also poses problems for authenticating the validity of sources. Journalists are increasingly finding that a danger inherent in opening up the reporting process is that they become more susceptible to attempts to mislead or hoax. This is particularly the case with live-blogs which need regular updates, require authors to make split-second decisions about the reliability of information and take care to caveat material when there are questions.

For journalists with more time, it is incumbent, therefore, to apply an equal if not more rigorous standard of proof when investigating in the open. In the Tomlinson case, when sources were encountered through the internet it was mostly possible to arrange meetings in person. That was not possible when investigating Mubenga, where there was an attempt by a bogus passenger to supply us false information.

In lieu of face to face meetings, we were able to use other means, such as asking prospective sources to send us copies of their airline tickets, to verify their accounts. What the investigations into the deaths of both Tomlinson and Mubenga show is that journalists don’t always need to investigate into the dark. Through sharing what they do know, they are most likely to discover what they don’t.

Paul Lewis: How “citizen journalism” aided two major Guardian scoops (guest post)

In a guest post for the Online Journalism Blog, Paul Lewis shows how Twitter helped the Guardian in its investigations into the deaths of news vendor Ian Tomlinson at the London G20 protests and Jimmy Mubenga, the Angolan detainee, while he was being deported from Heathrow.

This originally appeared in the book Investigative Journalism: Dead or Alive?, which also includes another chapter previously published on the blog: Has investigative journalism found its feet online?.

Investigative journalists traditionally work in the shadows, quietly squirrelling away information until they have gathered enough to stand-up their story. That silence reassures sources, guarantees targets do not discover they are being scrutinised and, perhaps most importantly, prevents competitors from pinching the scoop.

But an alternative modus operandi is insurgent. It is counter-intuitive to traditionalist mind-set, but far more consistent with the prevailing way readers are beginning to engage with news.

Investigating in the open means telling the people what you are looking for and asking them to help search. It means telling them what you have found, too, as you find it. It works because the ease with which information can be shared via the internet, where social-media is enabling collaborative enterprise between paid journalists and citizens who are experts in their realm.

Journalism has historically been about the hunt for sources, but this open method reverses that process, creating exchanges of information through which sources can seek out journalists. There are drawbacks, of course. This approach can mean forfeiting the short-term scoop. At times, the journalist must lose control of what is being investigated, how and by whom, and watch from a distance as others make advances on their story.

They have to drop the fallacy that their job title bestows upon them a superior insight to others. But all these are all worthwhile sacrifices in the context of what can be gained.

This is illustrated by Guardian investigations into the deaths of Ian Tomlinson, the newspaper seller who died at the London G20 protests in 2009, and Jimmy Mubenga, the Angolan detainee who died while being deported from Heathrow on 12 October 2010. In both cases, eliciting cooperation through the internet – particularly Twitter – allowed us to successfully challenge the official accounts of the deaths.

In the second part Lewis explains how he used Twitter and Flickr to pursue his investigation into the death of Ian Tomlinson.

UPDATE: The stories described in these posts can also be seen in this video of Paul speaking at the TEDx conference in Thessaloniki: