Investigative journalism masterclass

I spent the weekend on a Guardian Masterclass on investigative journalism, run  by Paul Lewis and Heather Brooke.

Probably the most interesting thing for me was seeing how Paul did the investigations behind his biggest stories, such as the Ian Tomlinson case and the death of Jimmy Mubenga, who was allegedly asphyxiated by security guards on a plane as he was being deported to Angola.

Twitter was key to finding witnesses and evidence in both cases. Something I didn’t realise the Guardian did was to write “teaser” stories which, with some clever wording, would alert anyone searching for the story that they were trying to investigate it further. Plenty of tweeting with the right hashtag was very effective at getting witnesses – in the Mubenga case an oil worker saw it whilst on an oil rig off the Angolan coast. Paul reckoned that both these stories would have been impossible to do before 2008 and the rise of crowd sourcing, mainly through Twitter.

Unlike old fashioned investigative journalism, with its slightly furtive methods, this kind of crowd sourced story was investigation in the open, in which everyone can see what the reporter was doing – other hacks, press officers, hostile officials as well as potential sources.

The story of West Midlands police attempting to ring Muslim areas with cameras was interesting too. A lot of the investigation hinged around a forensic reading of the press release and sniffing out things that looked fishy. After that it was simply a case of asking the right questions to the right people:
Where did the money come from?
What’s it for?
Where in the Home Office is giving you the money?
What part of ACPO does the money come from?

Basic stuff, but allied with imagination and tenacity it got a front page story and the cameras were removed.

Heather did a good class on using Freedom of Information requests, looking at how to query officials who refuse to give information when really they should.

On Sunday afternoon we had a session from James Ball who let us into the secrets computer security, encrypted email and chat, and interrogating data sets. He had worked with the WikiLeaks team on the Iraq war logs, turning the mass of data obtained from the US military into stories. Again, lots of complex ideas turning on asking basic journalistic questions.

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