Investigative journalism – “blind man’s bluff between sharp blades”

Investigative journalism – “blind man’s bluff between sharp blades”

Seminar for SEE investigative journalists held on 28 and 29 September 2015 at the Guardian. 

Collaborative forms of data gathering and storytelling as established trends of investigative journalism, innovative use of digital tools, cross-border, cross-jurisdiction and cross-media cooperation, lack of universal sustainability or business models in the digital age – these were the topics discussed during the seminar held on 28 and 29 September 2015 at the Guardian, an associate partner of the South East European Media Observatory project.

Six investigative journalists from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia, working on investigative stories with the support of the project, met with leading journalists of the Guardian to hear about the paper’s experiences in various forms of investigative journalism and exchange ideas about research techniques and tools to present the stories. Representatives of media development organisations and institutes from the Western Balkans and Turkey – partners in the regional project South East European Media Observatory - also attended the meeting and discussed key challenges and approaches to protect ethical, independent journalism in digital age.

Peter Preston, a columnist for the Guardian and the Observer, former editor of the Guardian for 20 years hosted the group of journalists and project partner organizations. During the seminar, David Leigh, former investigations chief at the Guardian now a professor of journalism at the City University and the Guardian investigative reporter Rob Evans held separate meetings with the journalists from the South East European region to discuss their working methodology related to the stories.

PHOTO: Peter Preston talks to the investigative journalists from SEE on the seminar in London

Fairness and transparency

Chris Elliott, the Guardian’s Readers’ editor, the internal ombudsman of the paper introduced his work to the group of journalists. His job is explained on the webpage of the paper: “to collect, consider, investigate, respond to, and where appropriate come to a conclusion about readers' comments, concerns, and complaints in a prompt and timely manner, from a position of independence within the paper”. “If we get things wrong, we do not want readers to rush to court. We want them to come to us”. Readers must receive a fair and swift response to their complaints based on the code of ethics of the Guardian. We want to be honest and transparent” – Chris Elliott explained. Over the five years he has been working in this position, and witnessed how the web has changed many things. The paper has millions of readers online worldwide, it publishes 250 000 words per day, so mistakes are immediately noticed. There is a dramatic increase of letters requiring replies or asking for a correction and it has become more crucial to act swiftly than ever before. Small flaws, like misspelled names, can be done immediately, but it is equally important to correct more significant mistakes, because if they stay there for 24 hours, it can be already late. Complex cases, however, require the Readers’ Editor to act with caution and collect information on the issue from various sources, including the reporters, to formulate a fair reply and this might take longer. According to Chris Elliott, it is sensible that complaints should be handled on the spot and the internal ombudsman tries to operate a fair, simple and trustable system. As a recent trend, government institutions and corporations have started to request immediate corrections which sometimes can be interpreted as a pressure. When asked about the „right to be forgotten and erasure”, Chris Elliott formulated his concerns that this may lead to a „deletion policy” in media. This right, however, can be exercised in exceptional cases, for example, when human life is at stake – he added. 

PHOTO: Chris Elliot at the Guardian seminar for investigative journalists from SEE

Cooperation among journalists is key to large-scale investigations

During the seminar investigative reporting was the main focus of the discussions. In his presentation David Leigh described major trends of investigative journalism in the UK today. He compared investigative journalism to a „blind man’s bluff” where the players move in between sharp blades. Investigative journalism has never been an easy field. Today journalists face various „enemies”. They can be spies, or owners of the media who may have different interests than investigative journalists, but also lawyers of powerful people who try to prevent investigative journalists to do their job. These are the classic challenges, but recently, in the Internet age, the most difficult – and probably the most dangerous – problem has been: how do media pay for investigative journalism? So ”starvation” has become a particular concern. Investigative reporting is not successful commercially, but it has a vital role in a democratic society. There might be different responses to this situation.

The “legacy media”, including The Guardian, for example, responded by making investigative journalism as its distinctive feature online. As a result, the Guardian published a series of important, worldwide investigations, including the Wikileaks and the Snowden stories, or the phone hacking and the latest HSBC scandals. All of them are examples of collaborative journalism which included a collection and analysis of multi-terabytes of data. Journalists from various media organizations and countries collaborated and used multimedia tools, including visuals to produce the stories. They actually used the tremendous opportunities of the digital world to do these complex, distinctive, and large-scale investigations. Collaboration is the new trend, and it is especially exciting, because it introduces a new culture in journalism. Journalists have always looked at colleagues working for other papers as rivals and now look for cooperation with other media and even cross-borders and cross-jurisdictions.

PHOTO: David Leigh talks to the investigative journalists from SEE 

Apart from the “legacy media”, new commercial start-ups or non-profit organizations in the UK and elsewhere have been hiring investigative reporters to challenge the mainstream media with well-founded investigative work. And similarly, news media organizations, including the Guardian or Le Monde have started to cooperate with non-profit organizations promoting investigative journalism – like the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism (ICIJ) – on joint projects. There are emerging investigative reporting sites like Exaro in the UK or The Intercept in the US – all of these initiatives aim to sustain investigative journalism in media today.

David Leigh also pointed out certain dangers for investigative journalism. For example, the advertisers’ influence pushes many media managements to be overcautious to publish investigative stories, while managements have become desperate to publish stories of sensation and thus lowering the professional standards just to keep their business going. Non-profit investigative journalism centres may also face challenges if a conflict of interest arises between their stories and sponsors – he added.

David Hencke, former prize-winning Guardian investigating journalist, now working with Exaro, an online publication specializing in in-depth investigation and analysis on governance, international affairs and economy, spoke to the group. He mentioned a few examples of his stories, which, although published by a small online magazine, made big waves.

Paul Johnson, Guardian’s deputy editor and head of editorial strategy spoke about how new working models have been shaping the newsroom. He used specific stories to illustrate the collaborative work of journalists either from various departments, regions or even worldwide.  This has resulted in remarkable stories and the new generation of journalists recognizes the merits of collaborative efforts and the need to be engaged with the audience.

Questioning things based on data

Juliet Ferguson of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, City University spoke about data-journalism as a recent trend in journalism. Journalists must understand and use data-journalism tools today to be able to “question things based on data”. Technology allows journalists to sort out data quicker than ever before, and their analysis can lead to stories. Well-researched public data can show how things must be and how things are, and by joining these data-sets it is possible to detect or ask new questions about what is actually happening. Juliet Ferguson mentioned specific stories where journalists actually used accounting programmes and their finding served as a basis for stories.

PHOTO: Juliet Ferguson spoke about data-journalism as a recent trend in journalism

In her presentation titled “The world in devastating pictures”, Maggie O’Kane, head of investigations on the video platform of the Guardian described how they are trying to make the use of data journalism into a film. This is an expensive model of investigative journalism and it is rather difficult to raise the necessary funding for the productions. The multimedia investigations started almost 10 years ago, and soon led to a cultural change of the newsroom of the then predominantly print stories. The Guardian became a sort of broadcaster itself. It cared about issues to cover in video – always linked to the print stories. Maggie O’Kane highlighted several important investigations, like the series Qatar’s World Cup slaves about the deaths of Nepalese migrant labourers who were working in appalling conditions on the constructions raising a lot of questions about Qatar's preparations to host the 2022 World Cup. She also emphasized that close collaboration of journalists in a number of countries was vital to produce a story of this magnitude which was an excellent journalism work, reached a large international audience and did a tremendous impact – she said.

PHOTO: Maggie O' Kane explains the importance of multimedia investigations

In his presentation Wolfgang Blau, the Guardian’s director of digital strategy spoke about the paper’s online operations, the international strategy to launch successful regional editions in Australia and the United States apart from the UK edition. Currently the Guardian’s online edition has approximately 130 million unique visitors, and it means that it has been very successful to reach readers worldwide. The print edition has a readership’s average age over 40 and is sold in 300000 print copies.  It is still the largest source of revenue for the paper. Similarly to global trends, the circulation of the paper is gradually declining, and consequently reducing the advertising revenues. Although the online edition has been successful to reach readers and also innovative - for example pioneering in live blogging and building online communities -, a large share of the online revenues goes to the giants Google and Facebook.

PHOTO: Wolfgang Blau, the Guardian’s director of digital strategy

Changing “job share” in media

The lasting consequences of the traditional “job share” between the television and the newspapers are just being realized – he said. In shorthand, television tells what happened – fast, breaking news - and a newspaper tells what it meant by providing analysis, opinion, investigations and context. This “job share” continued in the desktop world of the Internet, but in mobile devices this does not work the same way.  There are fears for online papers that if they do not do breaking news, they will be largely dependent on the readers whom they can reach via Facebook, Twitter and others sites. Thus, the Guardian has come to the conclusion that it needs to provide both types of content: fast news and the background of what happened – said Wolfgang Blau. He added that according to a recent survey among readers, the Guardian’s neutral news agenda, transnational framing and interpretation of news were highly appreciated by the audience, although their preferences for news over non-news type of information may differ depending on what platform they use.

In his remarks during the meeting, Peter Preston emphasized an important result of large-scale, transnational collaborative stories, namely, that their publication cannot be blocked. In fact, if the publication is denied in a country, the facts will find their way to the public on another platform, maybe in another country. In his closing remarks he summed up the discussions during the seminar and tackled the difficult problem of journalism sustainability. The rapid changes have caused headaches in media across the world, and people have been seeking various ways to keep journalism go. It seems there is no single revenue model or funding formula, but plenty of different forms exist. Online editions are not cheaper just because they do not need paper. It is a period of transition, but the question is if there is a next stage for journalism?  Probably this is the most important conclusion: the changes may not be consistent, but they are swift and it is hard to predict what comes next.