Tag Archives: paul lewis

A lesson from Superstorm Sandy: How to find sources using social media

By Ian Silvera

In a world where an extraordinary amount of people own smartphones, it’s easier than ever to connect instantaneously with those affected by significant news events wherever you happen to be based. But what tools can help reporters find those affected?

Simple searches on Twitter or Facebook may present too many ‘junk leads’ to wade through. Tools like TweetDeck are better, but what if you were able to find social media users more quickly through geolocation? Surely that would be a much more efficient method?

There are numerous websites out there that offer this functionality.

Continue reading

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.

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.

Disproving the police account of Tomlinson’s death (How “citizen journalism” aided two major Guardian scoops part 2)

This is the second of a three-part guest post by Paul Lewis that originally appeared in the book Investigative Journalism: Dead or Alive? You can read the first part here.

The investigation into Tomlinson’s death began in the hours after his death on 1 April 2009, and culminated, six days later, in the release of video footage showing how he had been struck with a baton and pushed to the ground by a Metropolitan police officer, Simon Harwood. The footage, shot by an American businessman, was accompanied by around twenty detailed witness accounts and photographs of the newspaper seller’s last moments alive and successfully disproved the police’s explanation of the death.

The result was a criminal investigation, a national review of policing, multiple parliamentary inquiries and, by May 2011, an inquest at which a jury concluded Tomlinson had been “unlawfully killed”. At the time of writing, Harwood, who was on the Met’s elite Territorial Support Group, was awaiting trial for manslaughter.

In media studies, the case was viewed as a landmark moment for so-called “citizen journalism”. Sociologists Greer and Laughlin argue the Tomlinson story revealed a changing narrative, in which the powerful – in this case, the police – lost their status of “primary definers” of a controversial event.

Significantly, it was the citizen journalist and news media perspective, rather than the police perspective, that was assimilated into and validated by the official investigations and reports. Ultimately, it was this perspective that determined “what the story was”, structured the reporting of “what had happened and why” and drove further journalistic investigation and criticism of the Metropolitan Police Services.

The initial account of Tomlinson’s death put out by police was that he died of a heart attack while walking home from work in the vicinity of the protests, and that protesters were partly to blame for impeding medics from delivering life-saving treatment. Neither of these claims were true, but they fed into coverage that was favourable to police.

A public relations drive by the Met and City of London police was bolstered by “off the record” briefings to reporters that suggested – also wrongly – that Tomlinson’s family were not surprised by his death and upset by internet speculation it could be suspicious. These briefings contributed to a broader media narrative that endorsed police and criticised protesters.

How the police account left so many questions unanswered

The morning after father of nine died, the newspaper he had been selling outside Monument tube station, the Evening Standard, carried the headline: “Police pelted with bricks as they help dying man.” But it was plain to us, even at an early stage, that there could be more to the story. The overlydefensive police public relations campaign gave the impression there was something to hide. Embedded in the small-print of press releases, there were clues – such as the Independent Police Complaints Commission’s notification of the death – that left unanswered questions.

Most obviously, anyone who had ventured near to the protests near the Bank of England on the evening Tomlinson died would have known he collapsed in the midst of violent clashes with police. It seemed implausible, even unlikely, that the death of a bystander would not have been connected in some way to the violence. But pursuing this hunch was not easy, given the paucity of reliable information being released by police, who at times actively discouraged us from investigating the case.

All that was known about Tomlinson in the 48 hours after his death was that he had been wearing a Millwall football t-shirt. That, though, was enough to begin pursuing two separate lines of inquiry. One involved old school “shoe leather”; trawling through notepads to identify anyone who may have been in the area, or know someone who was, who could identify Tomlinson from press photographs of him lying unconscious on the ground.

That yielded one useful eye-witness, with photographic evidence of Tomlinson alive, with images of him walking in apparent distress, and lying at the feet of riot police 100 yards from where he would eventually collapse. Why was Tomlinson on the ground twice, in the space of just a few minutes? And if those photographs of the father of nine stumbling near police officers, moments before his death, were put online, would anyone make the connection?

Becoming part of a virtual G20 crowd

The answer was yes, as a direct result of the second line of inquiry: by open sharing information online, both through internet stories and Twitter, we became part of a virtual G20 crowd that had coalesced online to question the circumstances of his death. In this environment, valuable contributions to the debate, which were more sceptical in tone than those adopted by other media organisations, worked like online magnets for those who doubted the official version of events. Twitter proved crucial to sharing information with the network of individuals who had begun investigating the death of their own accord.

I had signed-up to the social media website two days before the protest, and became fascinated with the pattern of movement of “newsworthy” tweets. For example, a YouTube video uploaded by two protesters who did not see the assault on Tomlinson, but did witness his collapse minutes later and strongly disputed police claims that officers treating him were attacked with bottles, was recommended to me within seconds of being uploaded. Minutes later, Twitter investigators had identified the protesters in the film and, shortly after that, found their contact details.

Similarly, those concerned to document Tomlinson’s last moments alive, including associates of the anarchist police-monitoring group Fitwatch, were using the internet to organise.

Through Twitter I discovered there were Flickr albums with hundreds of photographs of the vicinity of this death, and dissemination of blog-posts that speculated on how he may have died. None of these images of course could be taken at face value, but they often contained clues, and where necessary the crowd helped locate, and contact, the photographer.

Journalists often mistakenly assume they can harness the wisdom of an online crowd by commanding its direction of travel. On the contrary, in digital journalism, memes (namely, concepts that spread via the internet) take their own shape organically, and often react with hostility to anyone who overtly seeks to control their direction. This is particularly the case with the protest community, which often mistrusts the so-called mainstream media. Hence it was incumbent on me, the journalist, to join the wider crowd on an equal playing-field, and share as much information as I was using as the investigation progressed.

Establishing authenticity and context

There were times, of course, when we had to hold back important material; we resisted publishing images of Tomlinson at the feet of riot police for four days, in order to establish properly their authenticity and context.

Internet contact usually does not suffice for verification, and so I regularly met with sources. I asked the most important witnesses to meet me at the scene of Tomlinson’s death, near the Bank of England, to walk and talk me through what they had seen. We only published images and video that we had retrieved directly from the source and later verified.

A different standard applies to sharing images already released on Twitter, where journalists such as National Public Radio’s Andy Carvin in the US have proven the benefits from sharing information already in the public domain to establish its significance and provenance. The break, though, as with most scoops, was partly the result of good luck, but not unrelated to the fact that our journalism had acquired credibility in the online crowd.

Chris La Jaunie, an investment fund manager, who had recorded the crucial footage of Harwood pushing Tomlinson on a digital camera, had become part of that crowd too, having spent days monitoring coverage on the internet from his office in New York. He knew the footage he had was potentially explosive. The options available to Mr La Jaunie were limited. Fearing a police cover-up, he did not trust handing over the footage. An alternative would have been to release the video onto YouTube, where would it lack context, might go unnoticed for days and even then could not have been reliably verified.

He said he chose to contact me after coming to the conclusion that ours was the news organisation which had most effectively interrogated the police version of events. It was more than a year later that my colleague Matthew Taylor and I began inquiring into the death of Mubenga. By then we had recognised the potential reach of Twitter for investigative journalism and our decision to openly investigate the death of the Angolan failed asylum seeker was a deliberate one.

Not all investigations are suited to transparent digging, and, indeed, many stories still demand top secrecy. This has been true for the three outstanding UK investigations of our times: the Telegraph’s MPs’ expenses scandal and, at the Guardian, the investigations into files obtained by WikiLeaks and phone-hacking by the News of the World. However, Tomlinson had shown that open investigations can succeed, and there were parallels with the death of Mubenga.

In the third and final part, published tomorrow, Lewis explains how he used Twitter to pursue that investigation into the death of Jimmy Mubenga, and the crucial role of verification.

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:

Has investigative journalism found its feet online? (part 2)

The first part of this serialised chapter for the forthcoming book Investigative Journalism: Dead or Alive? looked at new business models surrounding investigative journalism. This second part looks at how new ways of gathering, producing and distributing investigative journalism are emerging online.

Online investigative journalism as a genre

Over many decades print and broadcast investigative journalism have developed their own languages: the spectacular scoop; the damning document; the reporter-goes-undercover; the doorstep confrontation, and so on. Does online investigative journalism have such a language? Not quite. Like online journalism as a whole, it is still finding its own voice. But this does not mean that it lacks its own voice.

For some the internet appears too fleeting for serious journalism. How can you do justice to a complex issue in 140 characters? How can you penetrate the fog of comment thread flame wars, or the “echo chambers” of users talking to themselves? For others, the internet offers something new: unlimited space for expansion beyond the 1,000 word article or 30-minute broadcast; a place where you might take some knowledge, at least, for granted, instead of having to start from a base of zero. A more cooperative and engaged medium where you can answer questions directly, where your former audience is now also your distributor, your sub-editor, your source.

The difference in perception is largely a result of people mistaking parts for the whole. The internet is not Twitter, or comment threads, or blogs. It is a collection of linked objects and people – in other words: all of the above, operating together, each used, ideally, to their strengths, and also, often in relationship to offline media. Continue reading

Has investigative journalism found its feet online? (part 1)

Earlier this year I was asked to write a chapter for a book on the future of investigative journalism – ‘Investigative Journalism: Dead Or Alive?‘. I’m reproducing it here. The chapter was originally published on my Facebook page. An open event around the book’s launch, with a panel discussion, is being held at the Frontline Club next month.

We may finally be moving past the troubled youth of the internet as a medium for investigative journalism. For more than a decade observers looked at this ungainly form stumbling its way around journalism, and said: “It will never be able to do this properly.”

They had short memories, of course. Television was an equally awkward child: the first news broadcast was simply a radio bulletin on a black screen, and for decades print journalists sneered at the idea that this fleeting, image-obsessed medium could ever do justice to investigative journalism. But it did. And it did it superbly, finding a new way to engage people with the dry, with the political, and the complex.
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FAQ: How can broadcasters benefit from online communities?

Here’s another set of questions I’m answering in public in case anyone wants to ask the same:

How can broadcasters benefit from online communities?

Online communities contain many individuals who will be able to contribute different kinds of value to news production. Most obviously, expertise, opinion, and eyewitness testimony. In addition, they will be able to more effectively distribute parts of a story to ensure that it reaches the right experts, opinion-formers and eyewitnesses. The difference from an audience is that a community tends to be specialised, and connected to each other.

If you rephrase the question as ‘How can broadcasters benefit from people?’ it may be clearer.

How does a broadcaster begin to develop an engaged online community, any tips?

Over time. Rather than asking about how you develop an online community ask yourself instead: how do you begin to develop relationships? Waiting until a major news event happens is a bad strategy: it’s like waiting until someone has won the lottery to decide that you’re suddenly their friend.

Journalists who do this well do a little bit every so often – following people in their field, replying to questions on social networks, contributing to forums and commenting on blogs, and publishing blog posts which are helpful to members of that community rather than simply being about ‘the story’ (for instance, ‘Why’ and ‘How’ questions behind the news).

In case you are aware of networks in the middle east, do you think they are tapping into online communities and social media adequately?

I don’t know the networks well enough to comment – but I do think it’s hard for corporations to tap into communities; it works much better at an individual reporter level.

Can you mention any models whether it is news channels or entertainment television which have developed successful online communities, why do they work?

The most successful examples tend to be newspapers: I think Paul Lewis at The Guardian has done this extremely successfully, and I think Simon Rogers’ Data Blog has also developed a healthy community around data and visualisation. Both of these are probably due in part to the work of Meg Pickard there around community in general.

The BBC’s UGC unit is a good example from broadcasting – although that is less about developing a community as about providing platforms for others to contribute, and a way for journalists to quickly find expertise in those communities. More specifically, Robert Peston and Rory Cellan-Jones use their blogs and Twitter accounts well to connect with people in their fields.

Then of course there’s Andy Carvin at NPR, who is an exemplar of how to do it in radio. There’s so much written about what he does that I won’t repeat it here.

What are the reasons that certain broadcasters cannot connect successfully with online communities?

I expect a significant factor is regulation which requires objectivity from broadcasters but not from newspapers. If you can’t express an opinion then it is difficult to build relationships, and if you are more firmly regulated (which broadcasting is) then you take fewer risks.

Also, there are more intermediaries in broadcasting and fewer reporters who are public-facing, which for some journalists in broadcasting makes the prospect of speaking directly to the former audience that much more intimidating.

FAQ: Mobile Reporting

Another FAQ:

What good examples of mobile reporting have you seen?

It’s hard to say because the fact that it’s mobile is not always very visible – but @documentally’s work is always interesting. The Telegraph’s use of Twitter and Audioboo during its coverage of the royal wedding was well planned, and Paul Lewis at the Guardian uses mobile technology well during his coverage of protests and other events. Generally the reporting of these events – in the UK and in the Arab Spring stories – includes lots of good examples.

Could it become a genuine niche in journalism or just offer an alternative?

Neither really – I just think it’s a tool of the job that’s particularly useful when you’re covering a moving event where you don’t have time or resources to drive a big truck there.

Do you think more newspapers and print outlets will embrace the possibilities to use mobile technology to “broadcast”?

Very much so – especially as 3G and wifi coverage expands, mobile phones become more powerful, the distribution infrastructure improves (Twitter etc.) and more journalists see how it can be done.

But broadcast is the wrong word when you’re publishing from a situation where a thousand others are doing the same. It needs to be plugged into that.

Do you think the competition that mobile reporting could offer could ever seriously rival traditional broadcast technology?

It already is. The story almost always takes priority over production considerations. We’ve seen that time and again from the July 7 bombing images to the Arab Spring footage. We’ll settle for poor production values as long as we get the story – but we won’t settle for a poor story, however beautifully produced.

Have you seen any good examples of how media orgs are encouraging their staff to adopt mobile reporting techniques?

Trinity Mirror bought a truckload of N97s and N98s and laptops for its reporters a couple years back, and encouraged them to go out, and various news organisations are giving reporters iPhones and similar kit – but that’s just kit. Trinity Mirror also invested in training, which is also useful, and you can see journalists are able to use the kit well when they need to – but as long as the time and staffing pressures remain few journalists will have the time to get out of the office.

What are the main limitations that are holding back this sector – are they technological, training related or all in the mind?

Time and staff, and the cultural habits of working to print and broadcast deadlines rather than reporting live from the scene.

What advice would you give to individual journalists thinking of embracing the opportunities mobile reporting offers?

Start simple – Twitter is a good way to get started, from simple text alerts to tweeting images, audio and video. Once you’re comfortable with tweeting from a phone, find easy ways to share images, then find a video app like Twitcaster and an audio app like Audioboo. Then it all comes down to being able to spot opportunities on the move.