Blog investigations not all dog's dinner

In March last year, Menu Foods announced a massive recall of pet foods in the USA. Coverage of the story was, for some pet owners at least, too patchy and poor quality. But instead of simply complaining to editors, the pet owners decided to show them how it should be done.

A combination of ‘accidental bloggers’and readers mobilised to fill the gap. The Food and Drug Administration had been reporting fewer than 20 affected pets – bloggers managed to collate information on 5,000 cats and dogs that had been killed by the contaminated food.

Blogs such as The Pet Connection, PetFoodTracker.com and ThePetFoodList.com provided information ranging from symptoms of poisoning and safe foods, to the latest news, as well as acting as focal points for pet owners, lawyers, industry groups and reporters. One site, Itchmo.com, became so popular that it was banned in China.

Ten months earlier, Florida’s News-Press had been receiving calls from readers complaining about high prices being charged to connect newly constructed homes to water and sewer lines.

In a key moment for investigative journalism, the News-Press’ editor-in-chief, Kate Marymont, decided against starting a long investigation that might only yield results months later. Instead, she asked readers for help.

The result? Readers organised their own investigations, leaking documents and analysing blueprints and balance sheets.

‘Wehad people from all over the world helping us,’Marymont told Wired magazine, while the website received more traffic than ‘ever before, excepting hurricanes”.

Networked world

If you haven’t got the message yet, it is this: we are working within a networked publishing environment. Readers can unite, organisations can communicate directly with citizens, and we’re not dealing with lone whistleblowers any more – but with full-blown orchestras.

Add to this a reduced investment in investigative journalism and the relationship with readers is fundamentally altered. If journalists do not become networked themselves, they will find themselves increasingly cut out of the conversation.

Much as it may hurt journalists’ professional pride, we have to admit that readers are now no longer just potential sources – but potential colleagues and researchers. We no longer have the time or money to do it all ourselves.

Now I’m not peddling that old cliché that ‘everyone is a journalist’– but rather arguing that the process of journalism itself is increasingly open to deconstruction: the tools of researching, recording, publishing and distribution can now be broken up and distributed between teams of organised readers.

Talking Points Memo, for example, frequently draws on its readership to pursue big stories. In December 2006 the site posted a brief piece about the firing of a US attorney and, noting that several others were being replaced, asked its readers if they knew of anything similar happening in their area.

As the evidence accumulated, the rolling story led to the resignation of a senior justice department official and the cause being taken up by Democrat politicians. 

This isn’t to say the internet is all good or all bad. The ease of distribution makes for information that’s hard to censor – but also leaves it open to distortion by those who know how to ‘game’the systems.

While anyone can publish, new issues are raised around privacy and ethics. The public nature of the internet means journalists can more easily see connections – but so can the authorities – including who your contacts are, if you’re not careful.

Economic changes have meant an increased range of stories and an increased opportunity for anyone to gather, publish and distribute – but reduce the financial support for traditional investigation.

Potential pitfalls

Not only do we need to take advantage of the great opportunities that a networked environment presents – but we also need to be aware of, and address, its vulnerabilities.

In the meantime, for those worried about journalism’s financial future, there is hope – in a number of new financial models being tested online, from the increased role of public funds and foundations, to the use of the ‘tipjar’model.

The latter technique enabled former AP reporter Christopher Allbritton to attract more than $14,000 (£7,000) in donations to fund his reports from Iraq, and freelance journalist David Appell to investigate a sugar lobbying group.

And it was readers of Firedoglake.com who funded the travel and rent expenses of six volunteer reporters so that they could report on the trial of Lewis ‘Scooter’Libby in Washington.

Commentator Jay Rosen noted that as a result the site was able to draw on ‘more boots on the ground than any commercial news operation… more background, savvy and commitment to the case.’

If that’s the kind of coverage we aspire to, we need to take down the walls, stop mystifying investigative journalism and include readers in the process, starting now.

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