Over the last year in particular, I’ve become really keen to learn more about investigative journalism. It might be because my Leadership Coach is one and she’s pretty inspiring, or because of people like Carol Cadwalla being courageous and persistent doing really important work, or chats with my dear friend (and trailblazing investigative journalist) Yvonne Roberts about some of the huge risks she’s taken to tell challenging stories over the years or finding out that my half brother (who I only met for the first time 2 yrs ago) was the Editor of Panorama for years. Whichever it might be, I’ve become increasingly interested in the work investigative journalists do, certain that it needs to be better resourced, and especially interested in the role it can play in revealing more about how the internet is changing society.
The good stuff already going on
There is lots of great stuff already happening, of course. My colleague Catherine (who knows lots more than I do about this area!) mentioned the investigative journalism teams at BuzzFeed and within the BBC Regional News network. There’s also the community attached to the Centre for Investigative Journalism.
Bureau Local is connecting up a growing community of interesting new media initiatives and publishers across the UK with events called Organising the Organisers (I gave a talk at one of them earlier in the year) and this kind of convening that brings together investigative news organisations with people working in tech on questions around how technology is changing society (like Doteveryone) is really important.
Omidyar also commissioned a good report earlier this year about the need for the public to be involved in the scrutiny of automated decisions.
“In recent years, journalists have led the way in highlighting the societal implications of automated decisions. Through interviews, right to information requests, and investigative reporting, journalists can uncover the existence of important systems, as well as, most commonly, their purposes, constitution, and policies.”
What could be better?
Digital technology investigations
Because digital technologies change at speed and are changing our society at speed we need to up our game in how we keep watch on them and how we continually reveal their potential societal harms.
Where’s the funding for this?
It costs money to investigate, to obtain knowledge and evidence about how technologies and tech companies are working in practice, and of the impacts of them. We need more funders in the UK to recognise this needs resourcing. In the US there’s really active philanthropy for this kind of work. It’s great to see new initiatives like this AI and the News Open Challenge being launched, but there isn’t a single UK funder involved.
“We recommend increased investment in exploratory scrutiny, especially by journalists and advocacy organisations.”
Where are the UK examples?
It’s not just that the funding is US based, most of the stories are too. It’s very rare to hear about investigations and their results having a UK focus. My colleague Laura says that this might be because we have much better regulation in the UK and that means there are far fewer social harms to uncover, but I’m not sure that will continue to hold.
Keeping the examples dynamic
Doteveryone are crowd-souring a list of social harms to try and establish an evidence base, but evidence is not enough for influencing change, we need stories too. We also need this list to be updated and therefore there is a need to proactively seek out new stories as they emerge.
The value of a sole focus
Lastly, whilst we already have some brilliant UK based organisations increasing their focus on the impacts of technology on society (Bureau Local, The Ferret, Opendemocracy, Guardian to name a few!), I believe we need an investigative journalism organisation who adopts this as a single focus. US based and soon-to-be-launched The Markup is leading the way.
“We are a new publication illuminating the societal harms of emerging technologies. Technology is reshaping the news we get and what we believe; how our elections play out; our jobs and how we get them; how we access goods and services and what we pay for them; and who goes to prison versus who remains free. But there is not much independent analysis of the effects of these changes. That’s the problem The Markup aims to fix.”
So, who’s going to do this in the UK?