The Journalist magazine, August/September 2006 issue
New techniques of accessing data online could lead to a revival of serious and challenging investigative reporting. HEATHER BROOKE reports from a London conference that highlighted the possibilities of computer-assisted reporting
Fact is more expensive than fiction, and with journalism now a business like any other, in-depth reporters are finding themselves priced out of the market. At the fourth Summer School for Investigative Journalism (July 21-23), 130 journalists and researchers discussed a profession under threat and how best to cope in the current economic and political climate.
The three-day conference was held at City University in London where the Centre for Investigative Journalism is now based. The event attracted reporters from the BBC, the heavy papers, independent production companies, the regional press, agencies and foreign journalists from Europe and America.
Speakers included Alfred McCoy, who exposed the CIA’s links with international drugs traffickers and use of psychological interrogation techniques; Anna Politkovskaia, a Russian journalist who is best known for her fearless coverage of the war in Chechnya, and Charles Lewis, the founder of the Centre for Public Integrity in Washington.
Two moods permeated the conference. The ‘doom and gloom’ set grizzled over the demise of mainstream investigative reporting programs. A petition went round to support senior reporter Luc Hermann whose investigative programme 90 minutes is being cut from Canal Plus in France. Charles Lewis, former 60 minutes producer, told delegates of his continuing frustration with the lack of resources allocated to in-depth reporting by the mainstream media in both the US and UK.
“I got out when I thought it was as bad as it could get. Little did I know I was on the fifth floor of an elevator that has continued to descend.” His solution was to create ‘non-profit journalism’ and his Center for Public Integrity has used private fundraising to break major stories about campaign financing, Enron’s support of George Bush in the 2000 election, and the revelation of a secret Patriot II Act.
But amidst the gloom there was also a spirit of optimism that began cautiously but gathered strength. While all acknowledged that the mainstream media invest little money in investigative journalism, there are also more outlets for news than ever before. The UK Freedom of Information Act is giving reporters opportunity to access facts that were once off-limits. Trainers from America and Denmark taught a series of workshops explaining how reporters could take raw electronic data from public bodies and analyse it in new ways to get behind government spin.
“What was different this year was the surge in interest in computing. The rooms where those skills were being taught were packed and that’s the first time that’s happened,” said Gavin MacFadyen who runs the CIJ. “The whole landscape has changed and journalists see the value of using electronic tools that we’ve taken for granted and don’t really know much about.”
‘Computer-assisted reporting’ (CAR) is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not a type of reporting but simply another tool that makes it more effective. Public bodies increasingly keep their records in electronic format, so it makes sense for reporters to know how to get hold of this data and what to do with it once they get it.
Aron Pilhofer, a projects and computer-assisted reporting editor at The New York Times opened the conference with an overview of how his team of eight use a combination of the Freedom of Information Act and computer analysis to break exclusive stories.
“Nobody says ‘telephone-assisted reporting’, we just accept that the telephone is a useful tool for the reporter,” Pilhofer said. “So is a computer. As more records are kept on computer, it’s essential that reporters know how to access that information and analyse it in ways the public will find interesting.”
He gave the examples of a spreadsheet of food inspection results obtained from Westminster City Council under the FOI law. By analysing the data, a reporter could come up with a variety of stories from a top 10 dirtiest restaurants to a major investigation into the cleanliness of hospital kitchens across London.
“We’re more optimistic about the growth of CAR in Britain,” said David Donald, training director at Investigative Reporters and Editors. “I think you’ll begin seeing many more in-depth investigative stories that will be based on using CAR.”
Stephen Grey, a former editor of the Sunday Times Insight team who now works as a freelance, told reporters how he used various electronic public records and computer techniques to break the story about the CIA’s use of a secret fleet of jets to fly prisoners to Middle Eastern countries where torture is not uncommon.
If reporters were curious about the use of computers, they were equally curious about ways to make a decent living doing serious investigative journalism. The two reporters who broke the CIA extraordinary rendition story showed the traditional and modern way of doing investigative reporting.
Fredrik Laurin from Sweden’s TV4 was a full-time employee of the public television channel and by selling small bits of the story to his editor he was able to complete an investigation that took a total of two years. Meanwhile Grey did all of his investigation as a freelancer and then sold versions of the story to various media around the world including the Sunday Times, New York Times and Newsweek. He has also written a book about the subject that will be published in November.
Even the funding of the conference by the Lorana Sullivan and Open Society foundations, reflected the new non-profit nature of investigative reporting’s future.
A complete list of speakers, topics, notes and MP3 downloads from the main seminars are available from the CIJ website: www.investigativereporting.org.uk
Heather Brooke teaches the NUJ’s Freedom of Information course that next meets 28 September 2006. To learn more about computer-assisted reporting in the UK visit www.bicar.org.uk