Blogs and investigative journalism: publishing

Part four of this draft book chapter looks at how blogs have changed the publishing of journalism through its possibilities for transparency, potential permanence over time, limitless space, and digital distribution systems (part one is here; part two here; part three here) . I would welcome any corrections, extra information or comments.

Publishing

Traditionally, news has always been subject to the pressures of time and space. Today’s news is tomorrow’s proverbial ‘fish and chip paper’ – news is required to be ‘new’; stories “have a 24 hour audition on the news stage, and if they don’t catch fire in that 24 hours, there’s no second chance” (Rosen, 2004). At the same time, part of the craft of journalism in the 20th century has been the ability to distil a complex story into a particular word count or time slot, while a talent of editors is their judgement in allocating space based on the pressures of the day’s competing stories.

In the 21st century, however, new media technologies have begun to challenge the limitations of time and space that defined the news media in the 20th.

The internet provides a potentially infinite space for journalists to publish not only edited articles, but also raw material, while hyperlinks offer the potential to provide important context and background. When David Leigh and Rob Evans decided to investigate allegations of corruption in the arms trade in 2003, for example, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger suggested they think beyond a traditional book and create a website. The result, a broad and deep exploration of the allegations, the details and the figures involved, includes recent news on the investigation’s progress; a 10-part investigation into Britain’s arms trade; biographies and details on 40 people and how they are relevant to BAE payments; an interactive “global investigations map”; profiles of BAE’s weapons and planes and the company itself; photocopies of the main evidential documents; and video interviews with key figures. Leigh says that the website meant “We were able to lay everything out with no constraints of space and say ‘OK guys, here’s all the evidence'” while the website has allowed the two journalists to publish memos, faxes, emails and research passed on to them by other journalists and authors working on the story (Smith, 2007).

The ‘public draft’ possibilities of blogs can offer a more transparent way of working for journalists. At a time when public trust of journalists is low, the transparency of blogs offers a way to rebuild that trust, while Singer (Friend & Singer, 2007) notes the need for transparency as an ethical principle, allowing audiences to judge the validity of information, the process by which it was secured, and the motives and biases of the journalist providing it. Other theorists point to a need to narrow the widening gap between citizens and journalists (Gans, 2003), or to reappropriate the private discussion sphere that has been hijacked by the mass media in a way that excludes the public (Habermas 1989). “By widening the disclosure circle through information sharing,” writes Paul Andrews (2003) “blogs have contributed to the truth-finding process.”

In another example, during the case of the trial of former high-ranking Bush official Lewis “Scooter” Libby readers of the blog Firedoglake funded a team of people to ‘live blog’ the trial as it took place. The result was a transcript of what was said – too extensive for publication in print, but a resource which became essential for journalists covering the trial, and for anyone interested in reading the detail (Rosen, 2007).

In terms of raw material, The Center for Public Integrity has used databases to create a searchable website on details of government contracts awarded for post-Hurricane cleanup and reconstruction (Center for Public Integrity, 2007), while Wikileaks launched in 2007 as an attempt to use wiki technology to provide an “uncensorable system for safe mass document leaking and public analysis”. Within a year it claimed to have received over 1.2 million documents from “dissident communities and anonymous sources” (Wikileaks, 2007), while its first big story was a report on looting by ex-president Moi of Kenya — although the story has been challenged and the site ‘s sources of funding have been questioned (Norton, 2007). It has also been described as “a dumping ground for anyone to place documents that they want to see made public” with doubts raised about the security of the website:

“If a security hole is found in [the anonymity toolset] in a year’s time then it is now distinctly possible that the authorities will be able to go back through their data records and unpick the handshaking and message-passing that currently obscures the trail, and if that happens it would be very dangerous. The fact is that asking people to risk their liberty or even their lives by using software that inevitably has security flaws in it is a reckless and unjustifiable risk, one that is being taken by the posters, not the people writing the code.”(Thompson, B, 2007)

The permanence of material online over is equally significant. In perhaps the most famous example, a barely-reported speech by senator Trent Lott was picked up by bloggers and built momentum as more and more posters added detail, finding evidence of previous statements in favour of racial segregation, and expressing indignation that it had gone unreported, until it was picked up by the mainstream press.

For Rob Evans, meanwhile, it didn’t matter where the BAE story went in the paper, as long as it went online and reached a global audience. “It’s taking a very long-term view, which editors don’t normally take: you put something out there and 18 months later it will suddenly click.” (Smith, 2007).

Finally, new media technologies facilitate new forms and spheres of distribution – instantaneous, and global. RSS allows for instant and replicated distribution; reports can be ‘mirrored’ – copied and published elsewhere – to avoid being censored; and email, mailing lists and social networking services allow stories to be quickly passed on. As a result, sites like YouTube have been used in Iran to denounce state brutality, and in Zimbabwe to expose civil rights violations; and while many countries have attempted to block specific content or social networking sites in general, including Turkey and Thailand (YouTube), the United Arab Emirates, China and Iran (Flickr), users continue to find ways around this censorship, including using proxy sites and building browser extensions (Woodard Maderazo, 2007).

For Vaughan Smith, distribution technologies like Twitter allow him to update a dedicated audience, while postings on his blog are picked up by others (Tomlin, 2007), while in the example of the BAE investigation, despite being published by a British newspaper the story is now followed by journalists in dozens of countries. Leigh and Evans say they openly welcome help from journalists around the world and give it freely to anyone willing to take the story on. “We’re trying to think our way towards a new kind of journalism … The thing is, all the criminals are global now, the police forces are gradually starting to go global and now the journalists are global as well. We need to catch up.” (Smith, 2007)

Read the next part – on fundraising – 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/publishing. Click on ‘Edit page’ and log on with the password ‘bij‘.

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3 thoughts on “Blogs and investigative journalism: publishing

  1. Pingback: Digestivo | [ fractura.net ]

  2. Julian

    The negative comments on wikileaks are completely out of proportion as a reflection of what is actually said in the journalism community about this site. Further, the “looting of kenya” story has not been questioned by any but a couple of corrupt politicians in kenya who were the subject of the revelations. Please rectify this with a more balanced overview that reflects the real proportion of journalistic sentiment rather than reporting artificial controversy.

    Reply

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