Blogs and Investigative Journalism: sourcing material

The third part of this draft book chapter (read part one here and part two here) looks at how blogs have changed the sourcing practices of journalists – in particular the rise of crowdsourcing – and provided opportunities for increased engagement. I would welcome any corrections, extra information or comments.

Sourcing material

While the opportunity that blogs provide for anyone to publish has undoubtedly led to a proliferation of new sources and leads – particularly “Insider” blogs produced by experts and gossips working within particular industries (Henry, 2007) and even ‘YouTube whistleblowers’ (Witte, 2006) – it is the very conversational, interactive and networked nature of blogs which has led journalists to explore completely new ways of newsgathering.

One of the biggest changes that blogging and new media have brought to journalism is the rise of ‘crowdsourcing’, whereby individual elements of a particular project are spread (or ‘outsourced’) between members of a particular community. Typically these take one of two forms: tapping into a range of experience and expertise; or simply tapping into distributed manpower.

Borrowing from the open source movement, attempts to tap into the ‘wisdom of crowds’ draw on blogs, wikis, social networking and mailing lists enabling journalists to tap into a wider range of knowledge – or manpower – than exists in the newsroom – and pursue stories that might otherwise not have been covered, or which would have taken longer to cover.

Talking Points Memo, one of the most successful investigative journalism blogs, frequently draws on its readership to pursue big stories. In December 2006 the blog posted a brief piece about the firing of an Arkansas US attorney and, noting that several other US attorneys were being replaced, asked its readers if they knew of anything similar happening in their area. As the blog, along with sister blog TPM Muckraker, accumulated evidence from around the country the rolling story led to the resignation of a senior Justice Department official and the cause being taken up by Democrat politicians.

In a different story, owner Josh Marshall asked readers to survey their own members of Congress on the issue of the proposed privatisation of Social Security. Marshall says that:

“Hundreds of people out there send clips and other tips … There is some real information out there, some real expertise. If you’re not in politics and you know something, you’re not going to call David Broder. With the blog, you develop an intimacy with people. Some of it is perceived, but some of it is real.” (McDermott, 2007)

Similar approaches have been adopted by Porkbusters.org – which invited readers to identify wasteful spending in their state or district, blog about it, and link to it from the Porkbusters site (Reynolds, 2005) – while in another example, bloggers and readers mobilised to cover a story about the contamination of pet food ingredients exported from China which they felt was being overlooked by the mainstream news media. Blogs such as The Pet Connection, PetFoodTracker.com and ThePetFoodList.com provided information ranging from symptoms of poisoning and safe foods, to the latest news on the issue, as well as acting as focal points for pet owners, lawyers, industry groups and reporters. One site, Itchmo.com, became so popular that it was banned in China (Weise, 2007).

Hurricane Katrina has acted as a particular focal point for crowdsourcing initiatives, with a number of online operations, including TPM, drawing on reader input to compile ‘timelines’ for the events leading up to, during and after Hurricane Katrina. One of the best examples came from the ePluribus Media community, who gathered information on over 500 events, fact-checked and sourced, documenting “the devastation, the political shenanigans, and the struggles of the people living on the Gulf Coast.” (ePluribus Media, 2006) These range from a 26-year-old report about weak soil under the levee to an article 11 months after the levees broke documenting a tripling in suicide rates.

Once the online world had proved the approach could work, mainstream media began experimenting. And when in May 2006 Florida’s News-Press received calls from readers complaining about high prices being charged to connect newly constructed homes to water and sewer lines, Kate Marymont, the News-Press‘ editor in chief, decided that,

“”Rather than start a long investigation and come out months later in the paper with our findings we asked our readers to help us find out why the cost was so exorbitant … We weren’t prepared for the volume, and we had to throw a lot more firepower just to handle the phone calls and e-mails.” … 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. “We had people from all over the world helping us,” said Marymont. For six weeks the News-Press generated more traffic to its website than “ever before, excepting hurricanes.” In the end, the city cut the utility fees by more than 30 percent, one official resigned, and the fees have become the driving issue in an upcoming city council special election.” (Howe, 2006a).

In a further example from the Fort Myers News-Press in Florida, the newspaper put information online on which citizens had received government help after Hurricane Katrina, and encouraged readers to look through it. “Within 24 hours, there were 60,000 searches from readers, who then told News-Press journalists about neighbours with wrecked homes who had not received aid. The readers did the investigating and the paper then reported the stories.” (Beckett, 2007)

But there are reservations about using crowdsourcing for covering particular issues – in particular concerning legal issues such as libel and contempt of court, as well as the effect on newspaper staffing, and the potential for abuse.

Gregory Korte, an investigative journalist with the Cincinnati Enquirer who has been working to implement Gannett’s crowdsourcing policy, says crowdsourcing holds “a great deal of promise for certain “pocketbook” issues, like the sewage scandal in Fort Myers”, but that it will take time and work to discover the best ways of using it. “The newspaper of the future is going to need more programmers than copy editors, and we’re going to have to figure out how to make that transition.”” (Howe, 2006a). Greg Yardley at Yardley.ca, meanwhile, illustrates the danges of stories being hijacked by political groups and agendas, asking what would happen if he organised ten friends to call the paper, asking for an investigation into the local ‘Demolican’ councilman. “Can I influence the news? Now imagine the local Demolican party gets wind of this, and they start paying some inclined members to counteract this with their own stories and investigations. How much could they in turn influence the news?” (Howe 2006c)

The News-Press examples highlight not just how newsgathering is being changed by new media technologies, but also news consumption and – specifically – engagement. Jennifer Carroll, Gannett’s Vice President for new media content, notes that, “We’ve learned that no one wants to read a 400-column-inch investigative feature online. But when you make them a part of the process they get incredibly engaged.” (Howe, 2006a). Guardian investigative journalist David Leigh also notes that multimedia elements of the web such as graphics, video and audio can bring stories to life:

“The problem with all these bribery and corruption stories is they are often quite complicated, financial and dry. Because of the legal problems, of which there are many, you have to be quite roundabout with the things you say. But to find ways of doing it online that can bring it alive for people and give them a handle on it is a really exciting thing. You’ve seen these stories which say ‘Complex web of financial transactions’, and people’s eyes glaze over. This is about trying to find a way past that.” (Smith, 2007)

This point is echoed by filmmakers Journeyman Pictures, who state on their website: “Multimedia developments offer diverse and different broadcast potential in a way never possible before. They offer new platforms to a niche previously too small to justify much airplay on terrestrial TV. … A combination of the web’s interactivity, a powerful publicity machine and a topical sales focus means films remain easy to discover, and continually on offer” (Journeyman Pictures, 2007).

Added to this potential for increased engagement is a perceived opportunity to revitalise the fourth estate, as the ‘unfinished’ and conversational nature of blogs has opened opportunities for journalists to test their work in public, fine-tune it for errors, and invite additional information. When science policy blogger Nick Anthis proposed to write about the NASA public affairs staffer George C. Deutsch, for instance, it was one of his readers who suggested that he might not have graduated (Revkin, 2006). After confirming this was the case, Anthis published, and the story led to Deutsch’s resignation.

Afghanistan-based video journalist Vaughan Smith also posts regular updates to YouTube, mini-blogging tool Twitter, and a blog, providing a number of spaces for readers to contribute. Colleague Graham Holliday notes: “A lot of what Vaughan is doing is likely background stuff for longer features including interviews and suchlike. I think he’ll be putting that together when he gets back to London, making a longer feature or features.” (Jones, 2007)

Journalists who don’t post their ‘rough drafts’ online in the new media age, meanwhile, run the risk of being fact-checked and ‘outed’ after final publication or broadcast, by bloggers with a keen eye for detail or specialist expertise. The most famous example is ‘Memogate’ or ‘Rathergate’, when in 2004 CBS broadcast a programme about George W. Bush’s Air National Guard service, and bloggers raised questions about the memos on which the story was based.

“On 7 September, the day prior to [the] broadcast … [the] left of centre blog Talking Points Memo [posted] news that the programme was set to present ‘documents that shed light on Bush’s guard service or lack thereof’. Blogs of all political descriptions were promptly stirred into action in anticipation of the broadcast, especially those on the political right […] Nineteen minutes into the broadcast, the first post calling into question the integrity of the memos appeared on the right-wing blog FreeRepublic.com. Four hours later the documents under scrutiny were decried as a hoax again.” (Allan, 2006: 95)

One blogger in particular, Minneapolis lawyer Scott Johnson, posted an email from a reader to that effect, and returned from work to find “50 emails from experts of all kinds around the country, supplying additional information. And we kept updating our post with that information through the day.” (in Allan, 2006: 95).

Read the next part – on publishing – here.


Have I missed something? Included an error? If you want to make changes directly, this section is available as a wiki at http://blogsinvestigativejournalism.pbwiki.com/sourcingmaterial. Click on ‘Edit page’ and log on with the password ‘bij‘.

4 thoughts on “Blogs and Investigative Journalism: sourcing material

  1. Pingback: Blogs and investigative journalism: publishing « Online Journalism Blog

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  3. Pingback: 41 key moments in the history of online journalism – have I missed any? | Online Journalism Blog

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