Tag Archives: paul lewis

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.

Sri Lanka war crimes and the future of international journalism

Here’s a quick thought about a problem of international reporting: sources. Your viewers and readers are in your country, while your sources are largely not (there are exceptions such as CNN or the BBC, but humour me).

In order to make contact with the people and evidence who can help answer your questions, you have to rely far more on your personal network than, for example, a home affairs or education correspondent.

But the globalisation of modern news – and the ability of people to search on the internet for information related to their own experiences – has changed this. Now, if you report on an issue in another country, people in that country can see what you’ve written and contact you with further information.

In a nutshell this reflects the way that journalism has moved from a ‘push’ medium limited by transmission and distribution infrastructure, to a ‘pull’ (search) and ‘pass’ (social media) one.

Three particularly strong examples of this: Channel 4’s ongoing reporting on the civil war in Sri Lanka and evidence of war crimes. Video footage that was obtained as part of that journalism was, eventually, seen by someone who recognised one of the bodies. (A particularly good lesson for budding journalists is how photos of those bodies were dated using EXIF data, and correlated with documentary evidence from the Sri Lankan MOD – material that don’t lend themselves to broadcast, but can be put online)

Second, Paul Lewis’ investigation into the death of a man being deported to Angola. One of the passengers on the plane where he died was a US citizen who works in Angola. He contacted Lewis after coming across a tweet calling for witnesses.

Third, Paul Lewis again, and the death of Ian Tomlinson at G20 protests. This was again provided by a US citizen who happened to be in the UK at the time and came across the story after he returned home.

Curiously, of course, these two latter stories are not examples of international journalism in terms of their subject – but they do highlight how the web can make international newsgathering part of home affairs stories too.