Conference 2014 Speaker Series: An Interview with Cathy Newman

S1-2Cathy Newman is a presenter at Channel 4 News. Last year, she broke the story of allegations against life peer and former Liberal Democrat Chief Executive Lord Rennard of inappropriate behaviour towards women. Having been refused an interview with Nick Clegg on multiple occasions, her persistent attempts to get in touch with the Lib Dem party leader have attracted attention: first on a radio show (as “Cathy from Dulwich”) and more recently when she asked him a question at a conference on mental health. Before going to Channel 4 News in 2006, she worked at the Financial Times as a media then political correspondent.

She will be speaking at next week’s Polis Annual Journalism Conference on a panel focused on discussing how journalists sometimes have to ‘cross the line’ in pursuit of a story to hold power to account.

Continue reading

Conference 2014 Speaker Series: An Interview with Jonathan Stray

Jonathan Stray is the man behind Overview, a project from the Associated Press that aims to help journalists find stories in large quantities of documents. The tool uses keyword searches to automatically sort documents according to topic, making patterns and trends far easier to spot. Jonathan is a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, teaching and researching computational journalism. He developed Overview with a Knight News Challenge grant. Jonathan will speak in a session on successful tools and examples of investigative data journalism.

Overview is an impressive tool for journalists engaged in what you describe as “document-driven journalism.” Is it bringing stories to light that would otherwise have remained hidden? Are there any stories you are particularly excited about?
There’s a constant flow of stories based on documents. Right now, a coalition of journalists is going through thousands of documents left by former Ukrainian President Yanukovych. Last year, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists began publishing their Offshore Leaks project based on 2.5 million leaked offshore tax documents. And of course we’re still seeing reporting from the NSA files.

Those are famous stories, but even small news organizations eventually have to deal with a mass of documents, often the result of a Freedom of Information request. Our data shows that the median document set size in journalism is 9000 pages, which would take weeks to read without a computer. This is why we created Overview. You can find stories in masses of documents within hours, even if you’re not sure what to look for.

How important is transparency in data-driven or document-driven journalism? Is it enough to share the findings, or should reporters share the original data/documents also? 
Reporters should share their source material whenever possible because it lends credibility to their work and allows other people to build on it. We insist on open data from governments, so why shouldn’t we insist on open data from journalists? The DocumentCloud platform, which is free for journalists, is designed to make sharing your documents easy. But sometimes it’s not possible to share everything, because of security, legal, or ethical issues. Strangely, journalists must support both transparency and secrecy. Actually everyone who supports transparency has this problem — if you’re going to be more transparent you also need to be much clearer about what is really a secret, and why.

You discussed the idea of journalistic objectivity in a 2013 article. What do you think about the suggestion that “transparency is the new objectivity”?
Transparency is important, but it is not a complete replacement for objectivity. Objectivity is a complicated word that includes a lot of different parts. When people say “transparency is the new objectivity” they are getting at the idea that it’s ok to have a point of view in your reporting, and that it’s better to be honest about who you are and what you believe. I think there’s a lot of value in that idea, but it doesn’t mean that you can write anything you want. I think we all still insist on basic accuracy, for example. Also, transparency doesn’t mean you get to leave out the parts of the story that you disagree with, or use quotes in a way that twists their meanings.

So transparency alone is not enough. We also need things like accuracy, comprehensiveness, and fairness. I wish people would stop debating the meaning of the word  “objectivity” and instead talk about the many qualities that we expect in good journalism.

Have you personally faced dilemmas over transparency in your work as a journalist?
Yes. As a journalist serving the public it’s my job to get as much on the record as possible. As a human being talking to a source, you quickly realize that certain information might be damaging. These are often in conflict, and I’ve had to make choices about what is important.

How significant a role would you say that online comments and social media have had in making journalists more accountable to their readers?  Do you think one has played a bigger role than the other?
I view online comments and social media as different forms of the same thing — users able to talk back to the journalist, and to each other. I think this is incredibly valuable. One thing it has done is raise the standard for journalism, because there are always experts in your audience who will instantly see if you get something wrong. (This was clear even ten years ago, when Jay Rosen articulated the idea as “my readers know more than I do.”)

I think the journalist has two choices to deal with this. Either do very, very thorough work so you’re never wrong, or change the way you expect to interact with your audience. What makes the journalist so special? Why does their voice matter so much more than everyone else’s? Humility and the willingness to be honest about what you don’t know are important personality traits for the modern journalist.

Conference 2014 Speaker Series: An Interview with Alice Ross

Ahead of the Polis Annual Journalism Conference on Friday March 28th, we are interviewing some of our speakers.  Alice Ross leads The Bureau for Investigative Journalism’s work on drones. The Covert Drone War project is based on a database of all known US drone attacks in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, providing details of the number of strikes in each country and estimate numbers of those killed, including civilians. Alice will speak in a session on investigative journalism today.

Interview by Polis reporter Emma Goodman.

Do you think that transparency could be described as the “new objectivity”? 
 One thing that I would say about transparency is that it’s easier to measure: it’s easier for people to assess how transparent you than it is for them to assess really how objective you are. And it’s certainly a more obtainable goal than objectivity, because objectivity is a concept, whereas transparency is more of a process. I would say it’s certainly more realistic for human beings to be transparent than to be truly objective.

I imagine it’s hard to be objective about the kind of work that you do?
You can aim to be balanced. At the end of the day, with the drones project, we are writing about targeted killing, and you are going to have opinions about that one way or another. You’re going to have opinions about whether you think that is a proportionate and necessary response to the threats, and whether you think that it is an acceptable response for a government to make. But, you can certainly aim for balance and you can certainly acknowledge the circumstances and the fact that these are hard decisions that governments take.

There are also certain aspects of the way drone warfare is portrayed that we would contest, for example this notion you hear a lot that it’s video game warfare: that pilots are just sat playing video games. Even though our work is widely viewed as being anti-drone, there are aspects of anti-drone rhetoric, like this, that we would contest.

Is transparency even more important because of this?
Yes, we absolutely strive to be transparent in terms of demonstrating where we’ve obtained our information. Particularly because the drones database is at its foundation a project of aggregation, so we start understanding drone strikes and drone warfare by gathering together everything that we can about each specific incident that has been reported. We are not there observing the drone strikes ourselves, and actually very few journalists are there, so it’s absolutely critical that we demonstrate to people where the information has come from, and how we’ve reached the conclusions that we’ve reached. It’s also important to us that other people could replicate our findings if they wanted to by looking at all of our sources and replicating that with our counts and our tallies. Transparency is really important for all of that: it’s a key aim for us.

You are working in an inherently non-transparent area: what are the particular challenges that come with this?
The lack of official transparency is one of the core reasons that we do what we do. As a journalist, I wouldn’t regard the work we do as campaigning, except that we find it completely legitimate to campaign for official transparency about these deaths and so on and that’s completely key to the drones project. If we were going to lobby for anything, it would be transparency.

With regards to issues around that in our own work, it’s not always straightforward: it’s not always as simple as putting everything you can into the public domain. We’ve had long conversations about redactions in particular. So for example, there was a document we published a couple of months ago showing the Pakistani government’s own estimates of a number of drone strikes. We had previously published a section of this document, from 2006 – 2009, in full. We then obtained the rest of the document when I was in Pakistan, up to September 2013, and this had a number of people’s names in it –names of homeowners – and we thought very long and hard about whether we should publish those. In the end, after discussing it with a number of local journalists and researchers, we ended up coming to the conclusion that although there’s clearly a transparency benefit to putting the information out in full, at the same time, publishing the names of people whose houses have been hit, might, for example, give local military groups the idea that these people had been speaking to the government and therefore put them in danger.

It’s a balancing act from the point of view of the need to be transparent, and the need to protect people. And we came down on the side of protecting people. We went back and redacted the previous document as well – they were cases that had happened a long time ago so we were more comfortable with it, but once you start redacting, you redact all of the names.

When you think about accountability in your work, who do you think about yourselves as accountable to?
We are accountable to our readers who follow and share our work. We are accountable to the people whose stories we tell, the people we report on. We are also accountable to our sources, to represent their views fairly and accurately. Those would be the key groups.

Do you believe that online comments and social media are increasing transparency and accountability in journalism?
Yes, I would say that they certainly help to keep this at the front of reporters’ minds. There was a time when you would publish a story and you might hear about it in the letters page a couple of days later, but now, you publish a story and people can – and will – tweet directly to you with comments and critiques, questions and accusations (or compliments – people are extremely generous as well.) That immediate response, and the fact that that response comes directly to you, reminds you very strongly that your work doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

We respond to people on social media, we engage with people. It’s really important to engage with people who get in touch.

Interview by Polis reporter Emma Goodman.

Conference 2014 Speaker Series: An Interview with Fatima El Issawi

Polis research fellow Fatima El Issawi speaks about her new report on post-uprising Egyptian Media: “Egyptian Media Under Transition: In the name of the regime… In the name of the people?”

The report will be launched on Friday March 28th at the Polis Annual Journalism Conference. Our keynote speakers are Alan Rusbridger, Editor of the Guardian, and Ian Katz, Editor of Newsnight.

The report is available in full here.

Interview by Meg Charlton, Asuka Kaegura, and Kailey Fuller-Jackson.