Centre for Investigative Journalism Summer School
As part of its ongoing work to encourage investigative science journalism, the ABSW awarded four journalism fellowships to fund attendance at this year's Centre for Investigative (CIJ) Journalism Summer Conference. ABSW member Wendy Grossman reports back.
For the 1970s generation investigative journalism has an identity problem. That is, many people tend to associate it with exposing fraud, pinpointing corruption, and bringing down governments and rich people. ABSW members therefore might logically ask, what does that have to do with science?
One of the most detailed - and to me, most useful - tutorials at this year's mid-July summer school run by the Centre for Investigative Journalism (www.tcij.org) extended across four sessions in which longtime journalists Luuk Sengers and Mark Lee Hunter (www.storybasedinquiry.com) methodically worked their way through the stages of building and researching a story: hypothesis, timeline, scenes, sources, and fieldwork. Especially helpfully, Hunter explained how he organises and keeps track of the material he collects. The example they chose to illustrate their work? The possibility that toxic chemicals were leaking out of plastic pipes into drinking water. Doesn't that sound like science? (Their process for developing that particular story is written up in their short book The Hidden Scenario: Plotting and Outlining Investigative Stories, which you can acquire from the CIJ website. From their own website you can download, for free, The Global Investigative Journalism Casebook and Story-Based Inquiry: A Manual for Investigative Journalists.))
Other classes included numerous tutorials on various technical tools for data journalism: Excel; Access; R and RStudio; OpenRefine (taught by Jonathan Stoneman, who appeared at the 2015 ABSW summer school); graph databases; and even some bits of Python coding. For case studies the data journalists used to show the potential, one, presented by a journalist working for Greenpeace, studied the allocation of fish quotas in the UK, finding that only three companies own ost of the UK's fish.
Other speakers included veteran reporter James B. Steele; Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermeyer, who led the extensive Panama Papers investigations; Hajo Seppelt, the journalist who broke the Russian doping story; Duncan Campbell on computer forensics; and many others. Some workshops focused on getting the best out of a particular service, such as Companies House, which has opened up free access to its data, and offshore finance. Finally, the former policeman Neil Smith discussed using open source - that is, public - data sources; his website (www.uk-osint.net) is full of valuable links.
Probably many people's image of investigative journalists is confrontational, ferreting out secrets by asking people questions they don't want to answer. While that's true, what became clear at this event is the vital role of documents in establishing the truth of what's happening. You are, as Steele, Hunter, and Sengers all said, in a much stronger position if you can go to the source you've identified, show them the documentary evidence and say, "This is what happened, right?" instead of "What happened?"
To do that kind of work, as many speakers said, contacts and interviews are still important, but even more so is an appetite for finding and absorbing detailed documentary information; all sorts of treasure troves are kept that hardly anyone eever looks at and whose keepers are thrilled when someone expresses a genuine interest.
The ABSW has been trying to encourage encourage interest in investigative journalism, first by offering a grant to aid members who need time and resources to tackle specific projects, and second, by offering scholarships to this year's CIJ summer school as a good place to pick up skills, resources, and ideas. Often, when all we see is the results of a lengthy investigation, it all looks simple, which is probably why so many people think such work is about finding the right contacts and nosing out secrets. The value in CIJ's sessions is that enormously experienced people are willing to show their work - the how - so that others may continue and extend it.
So far, the number of meembers applying for either has been disappointing. Yet, as I hope the above has shown, although you may never be the person who's approached with a giant data dump like the journalists who worked on the Panama Papers, investigative skills are ones that ought to be valuable to every science journalist. Developing a hypothesis, breaking it down into facts that can be tested, then reassembling the pieces into a piece of truth - isn't that what both scientists and science journalists do?
Good investigative journalism - even good investigative *science* journalism - is being done in all sorts of places outside the traditional media, from NGOs to tiny cooperatively funded start-ups such as the Bristol Cable and Scotland's The Ferret, both of which presented their progress at this year's event. These are skills that, as veteran investigative reporter James B. Steele says, will always be valued.