Thursday, 25 November 2010

Let's talk investigations

There's a lot of chatter about 'new' ways of doing investigative journalism - those 'new' ways being, inevitably, online, connected, networked, two-way, global and local etc etc.

The problem is, very few of the acts of journalism that the 'new' ways enable are actually investigative. Sure, they're ways of getting below the surface of data and issues and public policy - but 'investigative journalism' they just ain't.

This matters. Because there's any number of external pressures squeezing genuine investigation out of mainstream journalism. And it would be journalism's and the public's loss if we journalists stood by and allowed the name 'investigative journalism' to become hollowed out - but that's what's happening.

Examples. This from Vadim Lavrusik - who teaches social media at the Columbia School of Journalism in the US and for that reason alone is unlikely to be lukewarm about the journalistic possibilities of networking.

His is a beguiling account of "a society more connected than ever" in which "investigative journalists ... are now taking advantage of their online community relationships to help ... uncover potential wrongs".

He goes on to argue that 'tomorrow's reporters' will be able to:

"create contextualized social story streams that reference not only interviewed sources, but embedded tweets, Facebook postings and more."

And already, journalists are:

"leveraging the vast reach of social networks in unprecedented ways ... social media is enabling watchdog journalism to prosper."

Fine. As far as it goes. No-one could possibly argue with the benefits of networks that enable journalists to dig into any story. Or to tap into the experience and expertise that's out there. Or to commission communities and audiences to wear out some of the real or figurative shoe-leather that has to be sacrificed in the interests of reporting.

But this is, rightly, called Distributed Reporting. And it's a long way from investigative journalism, though it might well throw up leads that generate an investigation. But in essence, it's no more than .. well, basic journalism. All journalism has inquiry at its heart - anything else is PR or advertising. But inquiry is not the same as investigation.

Crowd sourcing, or community sourced mapping, is often cited as another 'new' form of investigation - but again, it's anything but and often falls some way short of even being journalism's raw material.

While it's possible to point to examples of mapping that have been robust, timely, accurate and of public use, there are - as I wrote here - those that haven't been and which, in spite of good intentions, ended up lacking rigour, being quickly out of date, misleading and inciting community behaviour that was anything but beneficial.

The third main category of 'new investigative journalism' is more properly a form of watchdog journalism' - the best UK example is Paul Bradshaw's beta site Help Me Investigate. It's a hugely successful site, of immense value which delivers a new form of networked journalism and has seeded a number of successful investigations.

But in itself, it's not investigative journalism - actually, Paul doesn't claim that it is. At its best, it's an exciting, broadly based watchdog journalism - helping keep the community's attention on the things power does in its name. And seeking answers.

All in the name?

Perhaps all we have here is a difference in terminology - but it's one that matters and matters a lot.

Investigative journalism is much more than sifting data or collecting data that would otherwise be uncollected. It's much more than asking the pointed, significant questions that take journalism beneath the surface facts. More than ensuring power is challenged.

In truth, all journalism is about one or more of those.

At some point, all investigative journalism is about uncovering something that's being deliberately hidden. Something that's it's in someone's interest to keep out of the light.

And it's about assessing the veracity, motives and context of sources that help you uncover what's hidden ... often without anything other than strong, circumstantial evidence to rely on.

It's about persistence - getting the key player to speak. Getting sight of the key document. Joining the dots hidden in confusing and often contradictory testimony.

And the relentless, self-critical checking and counter checking, testing hypotheses, testing alternative interpretations of the limited facts you have ... making the call on what you can and can't say. What's true not just in the detail but in the overall account.

The obvious point. It takes time, it takes money and it takes commitment - both of the individual reporter and of the news organisation.

Of course, inviting audiences and communities in, to use those networks to grind through what can be ground through or to add the expertise that's out there. But does anyone really think that we could have networked our way to the truth about Thalidomide or uncovered the 'third man' or identified the Omagh bombers. Or crowdsourced or community watchdogged our way to those hidden truths?

No. Thought not.

And the danger is, if we allow the term 'investigative journalism' to be applied to something that can be made to look and feel a bit like it's 'investigative' but really isn't. And which, into the bargain requires nothing of the same time, money and commitment - is a hollowed out shell - we'll lose the real thing.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Can you hear me?

Whatever you think of Jon Stewart, his 'Rally to Restore Sanity' sticks an interesting question across the press coverage here of Al Qaeda's latest murderous plot.

Sure, that wasn't its purpose; that was more about creating a counter-voice to the vehement certainties that dominate US mid-term politics. Hence those banners:

"We could be wrong" or "If your idea can fit on a sign, you need a bigger idea."

Ho, ho. But deep inside is something that's more than just a parochial American, left/right, Tea Party/East Coast Liberal, Republican/Democrat thing. Take a look at this; it's part of Jon Stewart's closing homily:

"The press could hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen.

Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire. And then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected, dangerous flaming ant epidemic.

If we amplify everything, we hear nothing."

Ring any bells? Probably.

But what's it got to do with us. And Al Qaeda. And coverage of the printer ink bomb plot?

Well, this was what Clark Kent Ervin (honestly), interviewed on BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend, had to say; he was Inspector General when the US Department for Homeland Security was first set up. He resigned and is now a member of the Department's advisory council:

"We always tend to fight the last war.

Al Qaeda finds one vulnerability in our system, exploits it and then we close that vulnerability without anticipating what the next vulnerability they might exploit is."

Which brings us to the obvious question. Is the way that the British press tends to cover stories like this calculated to help us - citizens, voters, politicians - focus on anticipating future vulnerabilities?

Or is it - by raising alarm and fear and hunting for 'bunglers' - better calculated to ensure our political discourse and decision-making is backward looking and aimed principally at career preservation?

Take the Daily Mirror: its paper edition had the headline:

More Air Bombs Head for UK

Frightening headline suffering only from a complete lack of supporting evidence. It's almost as if truth doesn't matter. The Mirror website has the more restrained:

"Al-Qaeda may be plotting new Lockerbie-style bombing, experts warn"

adding it

"may herald the beginning of a new wave of al-Qaeda terror attacks"

and

"Britain could be among the frontline targets"

It could, of course. Or not. Without evidence, take your pick.

But what does this feel most like? "Holding a magnifying glass up to a problem" or "lighting ants on fire"?

And while it's vital, of course, that any security loopholes are closed, is this kind of fact-free, fear-focused journalism more likely to produce sound judgments about the true threat or decision-making that's more anxious to show it's across the last terror threat than that it's trying to anticipate the next?

The Attention Deficit of Crowds

Few of us haven't read James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. Its positive slant on wise crowd behaviour is striking, compelling and - if you don't think too hard about it - persuasive. Striking, too, is the total absence of counter evidence; the testimonies of individuals crushed under the heels of history's self-harming rabbles.

If you haven't come across TWOC, the notion is this, concisely expressed in its subtitle: 'The many are smarter than the few.' Obviously, it's not quite that simple. There are conditions, but, once met, crowds - the argument goes - are wiser than you would predict or expect; often wiser than the experts.

They can guess the weight of an ox, for example, without much knowledge of bovine density. While so-called experts, on the other hand, locked in groupthink, will do daft things like invade the Bay of Pigs or precipitate the Wall Street Crash.

It's an idea that matters to us journalists. A lot. One of the transformations we've undergone in the past decade is to realise that 'the people formerly known as the audience' (the crowd) may be wiser, usually, than the few experts (we journalists). They might be closer to, or in, the story.

So we tell ourselves that our jobs now are a conversation with those wiser than us. We work with our former audiences, devise new ways of networking them and the information they have.

One approach to networked journalism that caught on fast was crowdsourcing ... and please don't pretend you don't know what it is.

In theory, crowd-sourced news and investigations are networked journalism perfection. In the same way that in classical economic theory markets are perfect and consumers perfectly rational. That's to say, not at all. Not a bit. Substitute 'herd' for 'crowd' and you start to get the drift.

Here's an example.

Penurie

During the October, anti-Sarkozy strikes, my local paper in France - Le Journal de Montreuil - launched what was, on the face of it, a fantastic piece of crowd-sourced journalism. But it turned into a journalistic travesty.

Now, Le Journal is a fantastic local paper - it's tragic that more British papers aren't as assiduous, public-minded and community-focused. It's not very 21st C - it's only been online for a year and its photographers still turn their lenses to the audience rather than players at any event.

Google Map of petrol shortages in France.

When petrol deliveries began to be interrupted - on 18 October - Le Journal had a brainwave and set up a simple Google Map to log 'penuries d'essence' - the petrol stations that had run out. The idea was that readers emailed the paper when they found a station that was voided of fuel.

Great idea. Over the next four days, the map sprouted blue flags marking empty stations. It was exactly what real people in real communities wanted to know. Real networked news.

Except two Bad Things happened. Or rather, one Bad Thing happened and another thing didn't. Which was a Bad Thing.

After the first few days, the rush of info slowed - so the map never became complete. Worse than that, as the blue flags sprung up over the map, car owners started to panic. For most of the region, there are only three or four petrol stations within 10km. Once the nearest one was flagged, people got in their cars - with tanks 7/8 full - and headed off to the next nearest without a flag. Just in case.

Of course, the absence of a flag didn't mean the presence of petrol - just that no-one had flagged it. So when the slightly panicking driver turned up at an unflagged station to find it had no petrol ... slight turned into total turned into queues, forecourt fistfights etc, etc.

Wise crowd?

After four days, deliveries restarted. Again, at first the newly replenished stations were flagged ... until there was enough petrol in the system for no-one to care enough about the map to email the paper - though not enough to ensure there was petrol everywhere.

Le Journal's experiment highlighted the problems with crowds and crowd-sourced journalism. First - crowds aren't always as wise in practice as the theory predicts they ought to be or could be. Self-interest is a powerful driver, even within the context of an exercise in public good.

Second - networked journalism needs a much higher level of journalistic 'curation' than its advocates will usually concede. Le Journal's flagging was haphazard and failed to reflect the true situation on the ground, especially when deliveries began once again and the crowd's enthusiasm for the exercise waned.

In the end, because it promised more than 'traditional' journalism but delivered less, it was worse than useless. Worse than a reporter's daily ring-round. And you don't get much more old-media than that.

In one of the villages on the way to one of my local petrol stations, there's an old church. In the 1790s, a 'crowd' of revolutionaries took over the building and renamed it a 'temple to reason and sanity' - words they scratched into the chalk brickwork of the exterior.

'Crowds', 'reason', 'sanity'. I'm not convinced.