The challenges of distributed investigative journalism

One of the clearest ideas to emerge from the excitement around the new media transformation of journalism is the notion that the audience should participate in the process. This two way street has been nicely described by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger as the “mutualization of journalism.” But how to do it? What’s missing from what has been tried so far? Despite many experiments, the territory is still so unexplored that it’s almost impossible to say what will work without trying it. With that caveat, here are some more or less wild speculations about the sorts of tools that “open” investigative journalism might need to work.

There have been many collaborative journalism projects, from the Huffington Post’s landmark “Off The Bus” election campaign coverage to the BBC’s sophisticated “user-generated content hub” to CNN’s iReport. One lesson in all of this is that form matters. Take the lowly comment section. News site owners have long complained, often with good reason, that comments are a mess of trolls and flame wars. But the prompt is supremely important in asking for online collaboration. Do journalists really want “comments”? Or do they want error corrections, smart additions, leads, and evidence that furthers the story?

Which leads me to investigative reporting. It’s considered a specialty within professional journalism, dedicated to getting answers to difficult questions — often answers that are embarrassing to those in power. I don’t claim to be very good at journalistic investigations, but I’ve done enough reporting to understand the basics. Investigative reporting is as much about convincing a source to talk as it is about filing a FOIA request, or running a statistical analysis on a government data feed. At heart, it seems to be a process of assembling widely dispersed pieces of information — connecting the distributed dots. Sounds like a perfect opportunity for collaborative work. How could we support that?

A system for tracking what’s already known
Reporters keep notes. They have files. They write down what was said in conversations, or make recordings. They collect documents. All of this material is typically somewhere on or around a reporter’s desk or sitting on their computer. That means it’s not online, which means no one else can build on it. Even within the same newsroom, notes and source materials are seldom shared. We have long had customer relationship management systems that track every contact with a customer. Why not a “source relationship management” system that tracks every contact with every source by every reporter in the newsroom? Ideally, such a system would be integrated into the reporter’s communications tools: when I make a phone call and hit record (after getting the source’s permission of course) that recording could be automatically entered into system’s files, stamped by time, date, and source, then transcribed by machine to make it searchable. Primary documents would be also be filed in the system, along with notes and links and comments from everyone working on the story. The entire story of the story could be in one place.

There have been experiments in collaborative journalistic files, such as OpenFile.ca or even good local wikis. But I don’t believe there has yet been a major professional newsroom which operated with open files. For that matter, I am not aware of this type of information filing system in existence anywhere in journalism, though I suspect it’s what intelligence services do.

Public verification processes
Journalism aims to be “true,” a goal which requires elaborate verification processes. But in every newsroom I’ve worked with, essential parts of the verification standards are not codified. “At least two sources” is a common maxim, but are there any situations where one is enough? For that matter, who counts as a definitive source? When is a conflict of interest serious enough to disqualify what someone is telling you? The answers to these questions and many more are a matter of professional practice and culture. This is confusing enough for a new reporter joining staff, let alone outsiders who might want to help.

Verification is necessarily contextual. Both the costs of verification and the consequences of being in error vary widely with circumstance, so journalists must make situational choices. How sure do we have to be before we say something is true, how do we measure that certainty, and what would it take to be more sure? Until this sort of nuanced guidance is made public, and the public is provided with experienced support to encourage good calls in complex or borderline cases, it won’t be possible to bring enthusiastic outsiders fully into the reporting process. They simply won’t know what’s expected of them, to be able to participate in the the production of a product to certain standards. Those standards depend on what accuracy/cost/speed tradeoffs best serve the communities that a newsroom writes for, which means that there is audience input here too.

What is secret, or, who gets to participate?
Traditionally, a big investigative story is kept completely secret until it’s published. This is shifting, as some journalists begin to view investigation as more of a process than a product. However, you may not want the subject of an investigation to know what you already know. It might, for example, make your interview with a bank CEO tricky if they know you’ve already got the goods on them from a former employee. There are also off-the-record interviews, embargoed material, documents which cannot legally be published, and a multitude of concerns around the privacy rights of individuals. I agree with Jay Rosen when he says that “everything a journalist learns that he cannot tell the public alienates him from the public,” but that doesn’t mean that complete openness is the solution in all cases. There are complex tradeoffs here.

So access to at least some files must be controlled, for at least some period of time. Ok then — who gets to see what, when? Is there a private section that only staff can see and a public section for everyone else? Or, what about opening some files up to trusted outsiders? That might be a powerful way to extend investigations outside the boundaries of the newsroom, but it brings in all the classic problems of distributed trust, and more generally, all the issues of “membership” in online communities. I can’t say I know any good answers. But because the open flow of information can be so dramatically productive, I’d prefer to start open and close down only where needed. In other words, probably the fastest way to learn what truly needs to be secret is to blow a few investigations when someone says something they shouldn’t have, then design processes and policies to minimize those failure modes.

There is also a professional cultural shift required here, towards open collaboration. Newsrooms don’t like to get scooped. Fair enough, but my answer to this is to ask what’s more important: being first, or collectively getting as much journalism done as possible?

Safe places for dangerous hypotheses
Investigative journalism requires speculation. “What if?” the reporter must say, then go looking for evidence. (And equally, “what if not?” so as not to fall prey to confirmation bias.) Unfortunately, “what if the district attorney is a child molester?” is not a question that most news organizations can tolerate on their web site. In the worst case, the news organization could be sued for libel. How can we make a safe and civil space — both legally and culturally — for following speculative trains of thought about the wrongdoings of the powerful? One idea, which is probably a good idea for many reasons, is to have very explicit marking of what material is considered “confirmed,” “vetted,” “verified,” etc. and what material is not. For example, iReport has such an endorsement system. A report marked “verified” would of course have been vetted according to the public verification process. In the US, that marking plus CDA section 230 might solve the legal issues.

A proposed design goal: maximum amplification of staff effort
There are very many possible stories, and very few paid journalists. The massive amplification of staff effort that community involvement can provide may be our only hope for getting the quantity and quality of journalism that we want. Consider, for example, Wikipedia. With a paid staff of about 35 they produce millions of near-real time topic pages in dozens of languages.

But this is also about the usability of the social software designed to facilitate collaborative investigations. We’ll know we have the design right when lots of people want to use it. Also: just how much and what types of journalism could volunteers produce collaboratively? To find out, we could try to get the audience to scale faster than newsroom staff size. To make that happen, communities of all descriptions would need to find the newsroom’s public interface a useful tool for uncovering new information about themselves even when very little staff time is available to help them. Perhaps the best way to design a platform for collaborative investigation would be to imagine it as encouraging and coordinating as many people as possible in the production of journalism in the broader society, with as few full time staff as possible. These staff would be experts in community management and information curation. I don’t believe that all types of journalism can be produced this way or that anything like a majority of people will contribute to the process of journalism. Likely, only a few percent will. But helping the audience to inform itself on the topics of its choice on a mass scale sounds like civic empowerment to me, which I believe to be a fundamental goal of journalism.

104 thoughts on “The challenges of distributed investigative journalism”

  1. An outstanding share! I have just forwarded this onto a
    coworker who was doing a little research on this.
    And he in fact bought me lunch simply because I found
    it for him… lol. So let me reword this…. Thank
    YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending some time to discuss this issue here on your website.

  2. In defence of the Sony PSP, the majoprity of those 600 titles are large games created by reconised software houses whereas the majority of the 21,
    000 i – Phone games aree ‘bite-sized’ twwo quid offerings.
    Here at Moxlee Medical Mobiles we are proud to
    be one of the foremost occupational health srvices of any business
    iin the UK. To bring back the nostalgia of the olden times,
    there is no better way other than games like snake.

  3. Thanks for your marvelous posting! I quite enjoyed
    reading it, you’re a great author.I will ensure that I bookmark your blog and definitely will
    come back sometime soon. I want to encourage continue your great writing, have a nice
    weekend!

  4. How could it have been that on the way to operate you didn’t notice any.
    It was a small study and more research must be done, though the email address details are
    looking favorable. Drink Water– The only liquid you ought to drink is water.

  5. You, too, should find creative ways to generate referrals.
    The longer you wait, the less of a chance you have to reconnect with your ex.
    With this medium, the retail industry has found a new avenue for directly selling its products without bearing the costs of a physical store or fancy website.

  6. Thank you for another excellent article. Where else
    may anybody get that kind of information in such a perfect means of writing?
    I have a presentation subsequent week, and I am on the search for such
    information.

  7. My brother suggested I might like this web site.
    He was entirely right. This put up truly made my day.

    You can not consider just how so much time I had spent for this information! Thanks!

  8. He walks because her photo, found in gravel, helped him survive.
    Check out the slideshow for some visuals of the changes at Sunsong
    Ranch, and subscribe to Allie here, on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest for more tips as 5.

    That meant I worked with the Systems Admin, Network Engineer, Operations
    Manager, Email Admin, Backup Admin, DBA and the like.

  9. You will find explanation why individuals employ celebs to back products.
    In terms of the best way you dress, there is
    only one thing that separates you out of your favorite Hollywood celebrity.

    Selena Gomez performs at the 2011 Teen Choice Awards.

    No, it’s not a Halloween trick – the rumors are true.
    Here is what you need to know: You are enough right this minute.

    My blog post hack tap titans app, Ramon,

  10. Para estimular a un número mayor de estas
    mujeres a aceptar un empleo remunerado, en dos mil doce el gobierno chileno implementó
    una prestación en el empleo (Bono al Trabajo de la Mujer), como parte
    del nuevo programa de transferencia de efectivo Ingreso Ético Familiar.

  11. I think what you posted was very logical. But,
    what about this? suppose you added a little information? I ain’t suggesting
    your content is not solid, but suppose you added a post
    title to possibly get a person’s attention? I mean The
    challenges of distributed investigative journalism | Jonathan StrayJonathan Stray
    is a little boring. You should glance at Yahoo’s front
    page and watch how they create article headlines to get viewers to click.
    You might add a related video or a picture or two to get readers interested about everything’ve got to say.
    Just my opinion, it might make your posts a little bit more interesting.

  12. This is the right web site for everyone who hopes to understand this topic.
    You know a whole lot its almost hard to argue with you (not
    that I personally would want to…HaHa). You definitely
    put a fresh spin on a topic which has been discussed for decades.
    Great stuff, just excellent!

  13. What i do not understood is in reality how you are now
    not actually a lot more smartly-favored than you might be now.
    You’re very intelligent. You understand therefore
    significantly in relation to this matter, made me in my opinion believe it from so many various angles.

    Its like men and women aren’t involved until it’s something to do with Girl gaga!
    Your personal stuffs nice. At all times deal with it up!

  14. Victoria Beckham said in a recent interview with Allure magazine that she has a few preferences in life – She doesn’t self-tan, she
    would rather have sex than sleep and it’s okay if you call her ‘Posh’.
    Today, Department of Correction spokeswoman Diane Wiffin said, ‘We are reviewing the decision and exploring
    our appellate options. Las Vegas, the city of sin, is a
    great place to rekindle the sexual spark in your relationship with your partner.

    my site stager.gr

  15. Maple Tree Mind Bloᴡing Canvas Wall Аrt –
    Tᴡo Gіfts, KᥱyҺߋⅼԀег Lᥱaf аnd 5 Ꮪtɑгѕ, Տtɑгtоniցɦt Νatսrᥱ 31.5
    Ⲭ 47.2 In
    http://www.amazon.com/Maple-Tree-Mind-Blowing-Canvas/dp/B00F0WK8VO/ref=sr_1_30?ie=UTF8&qid=1441806743&sr=8-30&keywords=canvas+wall+art

    by Տtartоnight
    Ӏn Ꮪtосқ.

    Տοⅼd bʏ Ѕtагtοshߋρ аnd Fᥙⅼfіⅼⅼеⅾ
    Ьү Αmaᴢοn.

    Wаnt іt tοmοrгоw, Ꮪеρt.
    10? Огⅾᥱг ᴡіthіn 6 hгѕ 49 mins ɑnd
    cһοοѕе One-Ɗaу
    Ѕhіⲣρing ɑt ϲҺеcқοut.
    Dᥱtаіⅼѕ
    Ⲣгеmіսm գսаlіtʏ.
    ϜгamеԀ/ѕtreϲҺeɗ rеaɗy to hang.
    ӀԀеаⅼ ցift
    fⲟг any ߋccasіⲟn!
    Еneгgʏ ѕɑѵіng – Εcolіցɦt
    tеchnoⅼοցү.
    Ꮲᥱгfᥱct fоr
    Οfficе. Ϝⲟr a ѕmаⅼlеr ѕіᴢᥱ lоoк fⲟг
    ᗪᎢВ0613.
    Ԍlοԝѕ սр tо 8 Һοuгѕ іn tҺe Ԁагк.
    Ꮮսmіnoᥙs ргߋρeгtieѕ ǥuɑгаntеeԀ fⲟг ᥙnlіmitеɗ сҺaгǥіng
    геcуcⅼes.

    Ꮪреϲiɑl gift (fгее ⲟf cɦагge) ⲟfferеⅾ fοг
    аny рᥙгϲɦɑѕe.
    Fгom Тгеeѕ Сⲟⅼⅼᥱϲtiοn.
    ᎳiԀе ѕеⅼеϲtіߋn,
    Gгеɑt ԛսаlіtү, Μоneʏ-Baсκ Ꮪatіѕfаctiοn Guaгantᥱe.

  16. My famil members all thhe time say that I am wasting myy time here aat
    net, however I know I am getting knowledge every day by reading
    thes fastidious articles or reviews.

  17. Excellent weblog right here! Also your web site rather
    a lot up fast! What web host are you the usage of?
    Can I get your affiliate hyperlink for your host? I wish my site loaded up as fast as yours lol

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *