Paul Radu about a new breed of journalists learning investigative techniques from artists and hackers.
What does it take to be an investigative reporter in the digital age? Traditional media outlets are losing their relevance, and serious investigation now requires more than basic journalistic skills. In this chapter we meet a new breed of journalists learning investigative techniques from artists and hackers.
For the past three years or so, we have observed a radicalisation of the transparency movement. WikiLeaks and other whistle-blowing platforms have been at the forefront of this, along with the hacking of corporate and governmental databases. What do you think of this sort of enforced transparency?
I think enforced transparency is important. We use data released by WikiLeaks or other leaking services; they are always very useful. Sometimes, we just use them for background, but it helps us to further the story and to progress in our investigations. It is especially valuable when it is original information. For instance, when you look at the cables that were released by , there was very little original information in them. That primary information had been picked up and filtered by American embassies all over the world. In some cases, they pinpointed some real facts and these were useful to us as background material, but we can’t use that information directly. On the other hand, the Iraq war logs contained original information that was very useful.
“Leaks” means access to information in any form, so leaks are valuable, because access to information is what makes our work possible. This is why I call our era a Golden Age for investigative reporting: because there is a wealth of information that you can search through to find any that is meaningful to the public. We do also work with hackers, but we don’t do anything illegal with them. We just scrape public databases in order to re-index them and create new value. But honestly, if some information comes our way, of course we will use it. It is all still information.
How much of the information you use has been hacked or comes from secret sources?
Most of the information that we use is from public sources. But it comes from different countries, and this makes a huge difference. I would say that maybe a little bit more than 95% of the information we use and represent on our websites and in our investigative articles is public information. The rest can be from sources that do not want their identity disclosed. But even in those cases, we try to corroborate the details, to confirm them from public sources.
What have you learned from artists? What have you learned from hackers? Is it important to collaborate across many disciplines and skills?
When I started working with hackers and with artists, it was a shock, because I viewed things in my own way and I was sure that was the right way. I thought, “We, the journalists, are the ones who have the connection to the public.” And then I realised that these people, and especially the artists and the activists, have different ways of connecting with the public. This understanding that there are lots of other, much more creative ways than our own to pass on the message and deliver the information, that was very important.
From hackers, I also understood that information can be processed in many ways. One database can be used in many different ways to create new value out of it. Almost all of our investigative reporting right now is attached to databases, because we realise their importance and the importance of information. Before, the paradigm was the investigative reporter as a lone wolf, and that created problems. First of all, you would have filtered all the information through your own limited knowledge, and the information that you published would not be of real value. Second, you would have put yourself at risk, because the people that you were reporting on would have known that you worked on your own, and that if they harmed you, they would get rid of the story.
All these limitations vanished the moment we started working with hackers, activists, scientists, and other people who share the same interests. It’s about curiosity, about people wanting to know more about what is going on around them. Our ability to visualise information arose from our interaction with artists, hackers and programmers who knew how to use various programmes and had coding skills. We also tried to help them in return. For instance, while I was at Stanford University as a Knight fellow, I was always in touch with computing school students. They were exercising their skills by creating really amazing tools there, but they were not using them for the public good.
Being an investigative reporter, I realised that tools that could, for instance, extract entities from text would be very useful in a different context. We offered different contexts and different ways to present information. Although we are just at the beginning of this collaboration right now, most of our stories already include infographics, databases and a crowdsourcing element; this is something we learned from hackers.
What has changed in terms of access to information on all the databases? Until relatively recently there was no internet and therefore no easily accessible online databases, no new media, new devices, and so on. Has this changed anything or is it just hype?
It is crucially important. People complain that investigative reporting is dying, because in the mainstream media, investigative reporting teams have shrunk a lot. Some media outlets have lost their investigative teams completely. But in fact, we are living in a Golden Age. Investigative journalism needs to flourish, because accessing information has never been so easy. We really have access to information, and this access is growing day by day. It is a matter of knowing how to take advantage of this access and this information, through your technical knowledge, through access to technology, and of course through access to the internet.\ \
The role of the investigative reporter
Reflecting on the role of investigating reporters? Here is a blog post for you: Four Things Investigative Journalism Is Not
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The role of the investigative reporter has also changed: an investigative reporter used to act as a lightning rod, gathering information from various sources and then disseminating it. You can’t do this any more, because it’s very limited and doesn’t provide much of a service to the public. Nowadays, the role of the investigative reporter should be to put the pieces of the puzzle together and cooperate with people in various social groups and various parts of society where you have information. It has to be back and forth, it is not just about getting the information and passing it on. Investigative reporting is also about communicating with people via the internet and other platforms. You have to have access to expertise that is outside of your region and beyond your knowledge.
What would differentiate an investigative reporter from a regular reporter?
I would say persistence. With investigative reporting, you have to run along with the subject, always keeping yourself up to date on the latest – about organised crime and corruption in our case. You have to keep yourself moving and follow up on your stories. I think this is the main thing that differentiates investigative reporting from the daily reporting or from other types of reporting. There is also the capacity to analyse, gather and represent information. Without these skills, you cannot really be an investigative reporter because you will not be able to grasp the whole picture. Putting the pieces of the puzzle together is very important.
Usually, regular reporters learn only a little bit, because today they report on an event, but tomorrow they will be reporting on something else. The investigative reporter has to go a little bit deeper, to read about the subjects and the issues, to try to understand the minds of the people he or she is reporting on.
There is a difference between original investigative reporting and just getting some information or some files from the secret service or from the police, which is sometimes also called “investigative reporting” in our part of the world. Our own reporting covers whole new areas. We don’t report on issues that have previously been uncovered by law enforcement. We don’t follow the path of law enforcement, because we think that law enforcement is very limited. Our investigative reporting is ground-breaking reporting.
We use information from vaults and databases to create something entirely new, to put the pieces of the puzzle together and to create the whole picture. This kind of complete image of what is going on allows people to understand what is hurting them, and what is not in their interests.
Are there any new skills that you would say are necessary because of this unprecedented access to information and availability of new media and devices?
One of the problems with having a lot of information is making sense of it in order to transmit the primary message to people. This requires some skills that go beyond narrative. Investigative reporters and journalists in general know how to write a text, but what we need to learn to do a little bit better is how to. Because we are reporting on cross-border issues, we need to think about how are we passing on the message to people that are from different cultures, people that do not understand our language or the structure of our sentences. We have to find ways to present information visually, so that more people can take advantage of it and use it. Visualising information is a new skill that is developing now, with the help of artists, programmers and other people.