Tag Archives: kevin marsh

What is investigative journalism (for)?

On Wednesday I attended a fascinating conference addressing the question of whether investigative journalism was “dead or alive”. As is now routine at these events the ‘Is ice cream strawberry?’ question reared its head as those assembled tried to establish just where they stood in this Brave New World – but this time it got me thinking…

It was a stunning line up of speakers – live, pre-recorded, and remote – and after being drawn into a Skype two-way with David Leigh by chair Kevin Marsh on whether “professional” journalists still had a role to play in all this, I started to literally sketch out – on paper – some of the key questions underlying investigative journalism’s own identity crisis.

Is investigative journalism defined by how its done, or what it does?

Investigative journalism was described in many ways throughout the afternoon: as “uncovering the hidden”; “expensive”; “difficult”; “requiring dedication”; “has impact”; “holding power to account”. These terms are important: I’ve blogged elsewhere about journalism’s professional ideology and how it compares to bloggers’, and investigative journalism has its own professional ideology within that. If we are going to ask “But is it investigative journalism?” then these will be particularly relevant.

For example, there was a focus on investigative journalism as process that particularly fascinated me: Donal Macintyre talked about the ‘undercover reporter’ as a “narrative device” to allow them to create a narrative around important but difficult-to-dramatise issues, rather than something inherent in investigative work itself. In other words, for his purposes the process of ‘going undercover’ had a storytelling function as much as – if not more than – an investigative one.

On the other hand, some members of the audience dismissed modern examples of investigative work because it did not fit into this mythology.

A comparison of the Wikileaks, MPs’ expenses and Watergate stories is useful to flesh this out: in looking at those three where is the cut-off point that makes this one ‘investigative’, and another not? More to the point, why do we care?

If Wikileaks hadn’t had a website, would it make those stories more ‘investigative’? Do the parts of Watergate based on public documents not count as ‘investigative’ because they were available to anyone with a library card?

It struck me that this idea of ‘uncovering the hidden’ was key – and not too dissimilar to the general journalistic idea of ‘reporting the new’.

Defining ‘hidden’

What is ‘new’? It can be what happened today – but it 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.

So does journalism become investigative when that newness involves uncovering the hidden? And if so, what is ‘hidden’?

I would argue that it is 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.

Like the journalist’s eye for ‘the news’, ‘the hidden’ is subject to individual perceptions, and the talent of a particular journalist for finding something in it – or a way of seeing it – that is ‘newsworthy’.

I sketched out a thought experiment: what if all of the investigative journalist’s material was public: documents, sources (witnesses, experts, victims, actors in the story), and information?

The role of the investigative journalist would perhaps be as follows:

  • To make the ‘hidden’ (to their audience) ‘visible’;
  • To hold power to account;
  • To make connections;
  • To verify;
  • To test hypotheses.

This doesn’t sound very different to how we see their role now.

But in reality, all of the investigative journalist’s material will most likely not be online, so if we leave that thought experiment behind we can add other elements to acknowledge that, particularly in a digitised world:

  • Making the invisible visible (i.e. digitising offline material, from paper documents and witness accounts to the ‘invisible web‘)
  • Making the disconnected connected
  • Identifying gaps in information – and filling them

These are all in fact ‘making the hidden visible’ in another form. It is the final one which comes closest to the process-based model identified above. But does it matter whether they fill those gaps with material that is in the public domain or which only exists in a single witness’s diary?

(I may have missed elements here – if I have, please let me know)

Narrative and authority

The role of a journalist in creating a narrative came through strongly in the conference – and also comes through strongly here: hypotheses are about narratives; making connections is about making narratives.

The other role that comes through strongly is institutional: holding power to account involves (but does not require) being in a position of power to do so; verification involves (but does not require) the stamp of institutional ‘due process’.

My own experience with Help Me Investigate suggests that these two roles remain important bases for journalism as a profession: in crowdsourced journalism, ‘writing the story up’ did not particularly appeal to people (the story was in their minds already) – only journalists wanted to do that. And it took an established media outlet to get official reaction.

This is not to suggest that only journalists can “have impact” as was mentioned at the conference – there are plenty of examples of groundswells of opinion online instigating media coverage: Memogate is perhaps the best known example. But this does not mean we need journalists – it means that we need publishers and broadcasters. There is a difference.

Demystification

Does deconstructing investigative journalism in the way outlined above make the craft any less special? I don’t believe so.

Does it make it less mysterious? Probably. But that’s no bad thing. I was heartened to hear the responses of two of the Coventry University journalism students in the room to a question from Kevin Marsh on how they saw investigative journalism: the first felt that institutional restrictions on time or money should not be an excuse for journalists failing to investigate important questions in their own time; the second felt that people no longer needed institutional validation to investigate something: they could publish on a blog and build an audience that way.

The mythology of our craft, however, has said that they have to get a job before doing investigative journalism. We have even – over the last 50 years – built an iconography to market it: the ‘undercover reporter’; ‘Deep Throat’. And in drawing a line between investigative journalism and journalism – and between journalism and everything else – we took a little bit of power away from our colleagues, and from our readers.

Giving some of that power back was one of the things that excited me most about Help Me Investigate – and research into its users suggests they have found it genuinely empowering. It’s not, of course, enough on its own: there remains a disconnect between citizens and journalists, and too often power is held to account for entertainment rather than the greater good.

Now, I’ve taught enough students to know the sort of initiative expressed by those two Coventry students is not shown by every aspiring journalist (which perhaps comes back to my differentiation between wanting to be a journalist and wanting to make journalism happen), but still: it demonstrated that they were not going to wait to be given the job title of ‘investigative journalist’ to get out there and do some investigating. That’s good: it also shows that they are doing so not for status but for the reasons for investigative journalism’s existence: to hold power to account, to make the hidden visible, and perhaps just for the pleasure of solving a problem and gaining knowledge.

If we can swallow our pride long enough to stop debating the membership requirements of who and what can be in ‘our club’ – whether that’s investigative journalism, watchdog journalism, or just ‘journalism’, we might just have time to help those students – and those who can’t afford to be students, or indeed journalists – do it better.

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When we can’t believe our own eyes: Balance, objectivity, or transparency?

Time magazine's Wikileaks correction

It’s been a good week for followers of that endangered beast objectivity. On Friday Glenn Greenwald reported on factual inaccuracies in Time’s Wikileaks article, and the ‘correction’ that was then posted (reproduced above). Greenwald writes:

“The most they’re willing to do now is convert it into a “they-said/he-said” dispute.  But what they won’t do — under any circumstances — is state clearly that the Government’s accusations are false, even where, as here, they unquestionably are.”

Meanwhile, the BBC is facing a viral backlash (described as “lobbying” by a spokesperson) over Ben Brown’s interview with Jody McIntyre (transcript here):

Kevin Bakhurst has responded to the complaints and the copious comments on his post are worth reading in full – not only because many of them flesh out the debate extremely well (and others would sit well in a textbook on interviewing technique), but because they provide a compelling story of how people’s relationship with the media is changing.

In particular, on the subject of balance one journalist comments:

“This story demonstrates the fallacy of ‘balanced reporting’. On the evidence of the video Mr McIntyre is almost certainly a victim of an assault and battery, he should sue, and if he does – he will almost certainly win. Even if were he found to be in some way contributorily negligent ‘for rolling towards the police’ as it were – the Tort will still have been committed by the police. The Law makes it clear there is no such balance, yet through this kind of aggressive cross examination, perpetrator and victim are reduced to the same standing in the eyes of the viewer: both are placed under suspicion. And – vitally – to begin with such suspicion is not sceptical, but cynical. There’s a considerable difference.”

Meanwhile Kevin Marsh makes a strong argument against the swing from objectivity towards “transparency” as “replacing one impossibility with another”.

I lay all these out as fertile ground for any discussion on objectivity, transparency and ethics.

One ambassador’s embarrassment is a tragedy, 15,000 civilian deaths is a statistic

Few things illustrate the challenges facing journalism in the age of ‘Big Data’ better than Cable Gate – and specifically, how you engage people with stories that involve large sets of data.

The Cable Gate leaks have been of a different order to the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs. Not in number (there were 90,000 documents in the Afghanistan war logs and over 390,000 in the Iraq logs; the Cable Gate documents number around 250,000) – but in subject matter.

Why is it that the 15,000 extra civilian deaths estimated to have been revealed by the Iraq war logs did not move the US authorities to shut down Wikileaks’ hosting and PayPal accounts? Why did it not dominate the news agenda in quite the same way?

Tragedy or statistic?

I once heard a journalist trying to put the number ‘£13 billion’ into context by saying: “imagine 13 million people paying £1,000 more per year” – as if imagining 13 million people was somehow easier than imagining £13bn. Comparing numbers to the size of Wales or the prime minister’s salary is hardly any better.

Generally misattributed to Stalin, the quote “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic” illustrates the problem particularly well: when you move beyond scales we can deal with on a human level, you struggle to engage people in the issue you are covering.

Research suggests this is a problem that not only affects journalism, but justice as well. In October Ben Goldacre wrote about a study that suggested “People who harm larger numbers of people get significantly lower punitive damages than people who harm a smaller number. Courts punish people less harshly when they harm more people.”

“Out of a maximum sentence of 10 years, people who read the three-victim story recommended an average prison term one year longer than the 30-victim readers. Another study, in which a food processing company knowingly poisoned customers to avoid bankruptcy, gave similar results.”

In the US “scoreboard reporting” on gun crime – “represented by numbing headlines like, “82 shot, 14 fatally.”” – has been criticised for similar reasons:

“”As long as we have reporting that gives the impression to everyone that poor, black folks in these communities don’t value life, it just adds to their sense of isolation,” says Stephen Franklin, the community media project director at the McCormick Foundation-funded Community Media Workshop, where he led the “We Are Not Alone” campaign to promote stories about solution-based anti-violence efforts.

“Natalie Moore, the South Side Bureau reporter for the Chicago Public Radio, asks: “What do we want people to know? Are we just trying to tell them to avoid the neighborhoods with many homicides?” Moore asks. “I’m personally struggling with it. I don’t know what the purpose is.””

Salience

This is where journalists play a particularly important role. Kevin Marsh, writing about Wikileaks on Sunday, argues that

“Whistleblowing that lacks salience does nothing to serve the public interest – if we mean capturing the public’s attention to nurture its discourse in a way that has the potential to change something material. “

He is right. But Charlie Beckett, in the comments to that post, points out that Wikileaks is not operating in isolation:

“Wikileaks is now part of a networked journalism where they are in effect, a kind of news-wire for traditional newsrooms like the New York Times, Guardian and El Pais. I think that delivers a high degree of what you call salience.”

This is because last year Wikileaks realised that they would have much more impact working in partnership with news organisations than releasing leaked documents to the world en masse. It was a massive move for Wikileaks, because it meant re-assessing a core principle of openness to all, and taking on a more editorial role. But it was an intelligent move – and undoubtedly effective. The Guardian, Der Spiegel, New York Times and now El Pais and Le Monde have all added salience to the leaks. But could they have done more?

Visualisation through personalisation and humanisation

In my series of posts on data journalism I identified visualisation as one of four interrelated stages in its production. I think that this concept needs to be broadened to include visualisation through case studies: or humanisation, to put it more succinctly.

There are dangers here, of course. Firstly, that humanising a story makes it appear to be an exception (one person’s tragedy) rather than the rule (thousands suffering) – or simply emotive rather than also informative; and secondly, that your selection of case studies does not reflect the more complex reality.

Ben Goldacre – again – explores this issue particularly well:

“Avastin extends survival from 19.9 months to 21.3 months, which is about 6 weeks. Some people might benefit more, some less. For some, Avastin might even shorten their life, and they would have been better off without it (and without its additional side effects, on top of their other chemotherapy). But overall, on average, when added to all the other treatments, Avastin extends survival from 19.9 months to 21.3 months.

“The Daily Mail, the ExpressSky News, the Press Association and the Guardian all described these figures, and then illustrated their stories about Avastin with an anecdote: the case of Barbara Moss. She was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2006, had all the normal treatment, but also paid out of her own pocket to have Avastin on top of that. She is alive today, four years later.

“Barbara Moss is very lucky indeed, but her anecdote is in no sense whatsoever representative of what happens when you take Avastin, nor is it informative. She is useful journalistically, in the sense that people help to tell stories, but her anecdotal experience is actively misleading, because it doesn’t tell the story of what happens to people on Avastin: instead, it tells a completely different story, and arguably a more memorable one – now embedded in the minds of millions of people – that Roche’s £21,000 product Avastin makes you survive for half a decade.”

Broadcast journalism – with its regulatory requirement for impartiality, often interpreted in practical terms as ‘balance’ – is particularly vulnerable to this. Here’s one example of how the homeopathy debate is given over to one person’s experience for the sake of balance:

Journalism on an industrial scale

The Wikileaks stories are journalism on an industrial scale. The closest equivalent I can think of was the MPs’ expenses story which dominated the news agenda for 6 weeks. Cable Gate is already on Day 9 and the wealth of stories has even justified a live blog.

With this scale comes a further problem: cynicism and passivity; Cable Gate fatigue. In this context online journalism has a unique role to play which was barely possible previously: empowerment.

3 years ago I wrote about 5 Ws and a H that should come after every news story. The ‘How’ and ‘Why’ of that are possibilities that many news organisations have still barely explored. ‘Why should I care?’ is about a further dimension of visualisation: personalisation – relating information directly to me. The Guardian moves closer to this with its searchable database, but I wonder at what point processing power, tools, and user data will allow us to do this sort of thing more effectively.

‘How can I make a difference?’ is about pointing users to tools – or creating them ourselves – where they can move the story on by communicating with others, campaigning, voting, and so on. This is a role many journalists may be uncomfortable with because it raises advocacy issues, but then choosing to report on these stories, and how to report them, raises the same issues; linking to a range of online tools need not be any different. These are issues we should be exploring, ethically.

All the above in one sentence

Somehow I’ve ended up writing over a thousand words on this issue, so it’s worth summing it all up in a sentence.

Industrial scale journalism using ‘big data’ in a networked age raises new problems and new opportunities: we need to humanise and personalise big datasets in a way that does not detract from the complexity or scale of the issues being addressed; and we need to think about what happens after someone reads a story online and whether online publishers have a role in that.