Monthly Archives: August 2011

Has investigative journalism found its feet online? (part 3)

Previously this serialised chapter for the forthcoming book Investigative Journalism: Dead or Alive? looked at new business models surrounding investigative journalism and online investigative journalism as a genre. This third and final part looks at how changing supplies of information change the context within which investigative journalism operates.

What next for investigative journalism in a world of information overload?

But this identity crisis does highlight a final, important, question to be asked: in a world where users have direct access to a wealth of information themselves, what is investigative journalism for? I would argue that it comes down to the concept of “uncovering the hidden”, and in exploring this it is useful to draw an analogy with the general journalistic idea of “reporting the new”.

Trainee journalists sometimes see “new” in limited terms – as simply what is happening today. But what is “new” is not limited to that. It can also be what is happening tomorrow, or what happened 30 years ago. It can be something that someone has said about an “old story” days later, or an emerging anger about something that was never seen as “newsworthy” to begin with. The talent of the journalist is to be able to spot that “newness”, and communicate it effectively.

Journalism typically becomes investigative when that newness involves uncovering the hidden – and that can be anything that our audience couldn’t see before – it could be a victim’s story, a buried report, 250,000 cables accessible to 2.5 million people, or even information that is publicly available but has not been connected before (“the hidden” – like “the new” is, of course, a subjective quality, dependent on the talent of a particular journalist for finding something in it – or a way of seeing it – that is newsworthy). Continue reading

Advertisements

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.
Continue reading

When will we stop saying “Pictures from Twitter” and “Video from YouTube”?

Image from YouTube

Image from YouTube

Over the weekend the BBC had to deal with the embarrassing ignorance of someone in their complaints department who appeared to believe that images shared on Twitter were “public domain” and “therefore … not subject to the same copyright laws” as material outside social networks.

A blog post, from online communities adviser Andy Mabbett, gathered thousands of pageviews in a matter of hours before the BBC’s Social Media Editor Chris Hamilton quickly responded:

“We make every effort to contact people, as copyright holders, who’ve taken photos we want to use in our coverage.

“In exceptional situations, ie a major news story, where there is a strong public interest in making a photo available to a wide audience, we may seek clearance after we’ve first used it.”

(Chris also published a blog post yesterday expanding on some of the issues, the comments on which are also worth reading)

The copyright issue – and the existence of a member of BBC staff who hadn’t read the Corporation’s own guidelines on the matter – was a distraction. What really rumbled through the 170+ comments – and indeed Andy’s original complaint – was the issue of attribution.

Continue reading

A quick note to Louise Mensch: sunlight is the best disinfectant

Plenty of others have given their own opinion on MP Louise Mensch’s suggestion that authorities should be able to shut down social media during civil unrest, so I just want to add a couple of experiences:

Here’s the first: when rumours spread about children being kidnapped in supermarket toilets, they first spread by text message (not social media). When they spread via the semi-public Facebook, it was easier for others to raise questions or debunk them. On Twitter – a much more public medium – it seems even harder for rumour to get a foothold.

I’ve written before about similar rumours and how journalists can and do play a role in debunking them.

I’ve also written about the potential for automated debunking. The less ‘social’ a medium, the harder it is to create these automated services, and the harder it is to distribute facts.

Finally, I’ve written about how journalists can use the qualities of social media itself to more easily separate rumour from fact.

Gossip and rumour don’t need social media to spread. Removing social media – in my experience (and that of the police, apparently) – just makes it harder to spot, and debunk.