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From alpha users to a man in Angola: Adventures in crowdsourcing and journalism

Yesterday’s Media Standards Trust data and news sourcing event presented a difficult decision early on: Whether to attend “Crowdsourcing and other innovations in news sourcing” or “Open government data, data mining, and the semantic web”. Both sessions looked good.

I thought about it for a bit and then plumped for crowdsourcing. The Guardian’s Martin Belam did this:

Belam may have then defied a 4-0 response in favour of the data session, but it does reflect the effect of networks like Twitter in encouraging journalists – and others – to seek out the opinion or knowledge of crowds: crowds of readers, crowds of followers, crowds of eyewitnesses, statisticians, or anti-government protestors.

Crowdsourcing is nothing new, but tools like Twitter and Quora are changing the way journalists work. And with startups based on crowdsourcing and user-generated content becoming more established, it’s interesting to look at the way that they and other news organisations make use of this amplified door-to-door search for information.

The MST assembled a pretty good team to talk about it: Paul Lewis, special projects editor, the Guardian; Paul Bradshaw, professor of journalism, City University and founder of helpmeinvestigate.com; Turi Munthe, founder, Demotix; and Bella Hurrell, editor, BBC online specials team.

From the G20 protests to an oil field in Angola

Lewis is perhaps best known for his investigation into the death of Ian Tomlinson following the G20 protests, during which he put a call out on Twitter for witnesses to a police officer pushing Tomlinson to the ground. Lewis had only started using the network two days before and was, he recalled, “just starting to learn what a hashtag was”.

“It just seemed like the most remarkable tool to share an investigation … a really rich source of information being chewed over by the people.”

He ended up with around 20 witnesses that he could plot on a map. “Only one of which we found by traditional reporting – which was me taking their details in a notepad on the day”.

“I may have benefited from the prestige of breaking that story, but many people broke that story.”

Later, investigating the death of deportee Jimmy Mubenga aboard an airplane, Lewis again put a call out via Twitter and somehow found a man “in an oil field in Angola, who had been three seats away from the incident”. Lewis had the fellow passenger send a copy of his boarding pass and cross-checked details about the flight with him for verification.

But the pressure of the online, rolling, tweeted and liveblogged news environment is leading some to make compromises when it comes to verifying information, he claimed.

“Some of the old rules are being forgotten in the lure of instantaneous information.”

The secret to successful crowdsourcing

From the investigations of a single reporter to the structural application of crowdsourcing: Paul Bradshaw and Turi Munthe talked about the difficulties of basing a group or running a business around the idea.

Among them were keeping up interest in long-term investigations and ensuring a sufficient diversity among your crowd. In what is now commonly associated with the trouble that WikiLeaks had in the early days in getting the general public to crowdsource the verification and analysis of its huge datasets, there is a recognised difficulty in getting people to engage with large, unwieldy dumps or slow, painstaking investigations in which progress can be agonisingly slow.

Bradshaw suggested five qualities for a successful crowdsourced investigation on his helpmeinvestigate.com:

1. Alpha users: One or a small group of active, motivated participants.

2. Momentum: Results along the way that will keep participants from becoming frustrated.

3. Modularisation: That the investigation can be broken down into small parts to help people contribute.

4. Publicness: Publicity vía social networks and blogs.

5. Expertise/diversity: A non-homogenous group who can balance the direction and interests of the investigation.

The wisdom of crowds?

The expression “the wisdom of crowds” has a tendency of making an appearance in crowdsourcing discussions. Ensuring just how wise – and how balanced – those crowds were became an important part of the session. Number 5 on Bradshaw’s list, it seems, can’t be taken for granted.

Bradshaw said that helpmeinvestigate.com had tried to seed expert voices into certain investigations from the beginning, and encouraged people to cross-check and question information, but acknowledged the difficulty of ensuring a balanced crowd.

Munthe reiterated the importance of “alpha-users”, citing a pyramid structure that his citizen photography agency follows, but stressed that crowds would always be partial in some respect.

“For Wikipedia to be better than the Encyclopaedia Britannica, it needs a total demographic. Everybody needs to be involved.”

That won’t happen. But as social networks spring up left, right, and centre and, along with the internet itself, become more and more pervasive, knowing how to seek out and filter information from crowds looks set to become a more and more important part of the journalists tool kit.

I want to finish with a particularly good example of Twitter crowdsourcing from last month, in case you missed it.

Local government press officer Dan Slee (@danslee) was sat with colleagues who said they “didn’t get Twitter”. So instead of explaining, he tweeted the question to his followers. Half an hour later: hey presto, he a whole heap of different reasons why Twitter is useful.

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Press freedom group surveys journalists’ treatment by G20 police

Journalists who felt their freedom of expression was “compromised” by police at the recent Toronto G20 summit have been asked to share their experiences.

A survey is being carried out by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression in order to compile a public report.

This follows reports that four journalists have filed complaints to the police about their treatment.

The survey asks a series of questions, covering what the individual was doing at the summit, interactions with security officials and treatment by police.

The full post here…

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Vancouver Sun: Four journalists file complaints over G20 arrests

A Toronto-based lawyer representing four journalists, who have filed complaints about police treatment during the weekend’s G20 summit in Toronto, has called for a full investigation into the allegations of police violence.

Freelance journalist for the Guardian Jesse Rosenfeld and Amy Miller, a journalist working at the summit’s Alternative Media Centre, spoke about their experiences earlier this week. Journalists Daniel McIsaac and Lisa Walter have also filed complaints according to the Sun’s report.

Full story on the Vancouver Sun’s website…

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Alan Rusbridger (@arusbridger) on why Twitter matters

July 23rd, 2009 | 1 Comment | Posted by in Events, Journalism

Twitter got a big mention in Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger’s ‘Journalism Matters’ speech last night. Repeating his ‘future of newspaper’ Twitter recommendations made in Berlin in April (@amonck, @niemanlab, @jeffjarvis and @cshirky) he praised the way it could be used as a personalised filter for information consumption.

He used Guardian technology writer Jemima Kiss as one example of why to use it – she’s probably in labour, and twittering it, ‘as we speak’, he joked. Journalism.co.uk didn’t put its hand up to say ‘err, no – she’s already had all 10lb 6oz of it’ (we learned via Twitter, obviously).

He also mentioned @GuardianTech with its impressive 900,000+ followers, and showed how journalist Paul Lewis (@http://twitter.com/paul__lewis) had used his account to report from the G20 protests.

Before Rusbridger was reborn as @arusbridger he thought it was all a bit, well, ‘silly’, but now he’s well and truly converted. In fact he thinks all Guardian journalists should use it: “I”m trying to get everyone to twitter”. He told this to a room of newspaper journalists in Norway and they asked whether he, as editor-in-chief, would have to moderate all those tweets?…

John Mair’s report on last night’s Media Standards Trust event here, and tweets from @journalism_live, and others captured by the #journmatters tag, below.

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Alan Rusbridger’s digital crystal ball: what next for ‘public information’ journalism?

July 23rd, 2009 | 3 Comments | Posted by in Events, Journalism

One of the more influential figures in British journalism – Alan Rusbridger the editor-in-chief of the Guardian and the Observer discussed his ‘why journalism matters’ at a star studded Media Standards Trust event at the British Academy last night. His audience included Lord Puttnam, Robert Peston, Roger Graef, Bill Hagerty, Felicity Green and Nick Cohen.

In his tour d’horizon Rusbridger chose to refer back to the past and, most importantly, forward to the future. He traced the origins of the recent seminal reporting on the G20 protests by Paul Lewis – which lead to a furore over the death of an innocent bystander Ian Tomlinson, after a phone video came to light. It was reportage taking the Guardian back to its foundations, Rusbridger said, drawing comparisons with its reporting of the Peterloo riots in Manchester in 1819.

That and Lewis’ work was based on simple journalistic principles of observing, digging for the truth and not giving up. “It was a piece of conventional reporting and tapping into the resources of a crowd,” he said. “There are thousands of reporters in any crowd nowadays. There was nothing to stop people from publishing those pictures but it needed the apparatus of a mainstream news organisation for that to cut through and have impact.”

Likewise on investigations. The money and time the Guardian had invested in the major series on tax avoidance earlier this year was, initially, simply the traditional way investigations were done. That story had been transformed by documents which came from readers of the series and were put first on the net before being injuncted by Barclays Bank. His audience had a sneak glimpse of them up on the screen.

But the days of journalists behind castle walls sending out articles ‘like mortars-some hit, some missed’ to readers were now gone. The process was thanks to the internet firmly a two-way one.

He quoted Jemina Kiss, the Guardian technology reporter, who has over 13,000 personal followers on Twitter and uses them to help research, shape and comment on her stories. Rusbridger admitted to being an initial Twitter sceptic, before his conversion: ‘I didn’t get it’.  “Sometimes you are too old to keep up with all these things  and Twitter just seemed silly and I didn’t have time to add it to all of these other things – but that was completely wrong.”

The Guardian editor looked back – all of 30 years – to the days of long and dull parliamentary reports in the broadsheet British press and compared them to the likes of EveryBlock on the internet, the US-based site which aggregates information in micro-areas to help plan journeys to work, and to avoid crime and other hazards. He’s not sure if it’s journalism, but ‘does it matter?’

Local struggles

But it was on the death of local news – on TV and in newspapers – that he was at his most challenging. ITV had all but retreated from the provision of it, with a final surrender due next year; local papers were feeling the economic heat severely and cutting back on the essential reporting of council, council committees and the courts – to the dismay of some judges. He called it the ‘collapse of the structure of political reporting’.

This ‘public information journalism’ should not be allowed to disappear, he said. It needed public subsidy. Rusbridger posited that it could be, but would not be, done by the BBC. More hopeful were the trials currently being run by the Press Association where they would act as a print and video agency / aggregrator for the country and syndicate those services to local papers/websites.

“This bit of journalism is going to have to be done by somebody,” Rusbridger said. “It makes me worry about all of those public authorities and courts which will in future operate without any kind of systematic public scrutiny. I don’t think our legislators have begun to wake up to this imminent problem as we face the collapse of the infrastructure of local news in the press and broadcasting.”

Rusbridger said local public service journalism was a ‘kind of utility’ which was just as important as gas and water. “We must face up to the fact that if there is no public subsidy, then some of this [public service] reporting will come to pass in this country,” he said. “The need is there [for subsidy]. It is going to be needed pretty quickly.”

Whilst modern journalism was evolving and being transformed by the new media, it still firmly mattered as did journalists, he said. “There are many things that mainstream media do, which in collaboration with others is still really important. The ability to take a large audience and amplify things and to give more weight to what would [otherwise] be fragments. Somebody has to have the job of pulling it all together.” All was not gloomy in Rusbridger’s digital crystal ball.

More to follow from Journalism.co.uk. The event was tweeted live via @journalism_live.

John Mair is a senior lecturer in broadcasting at Coventry University. He is currently editing a special issue of the journal ‘Ethical Space’ on the reporting of the Great Crash of ’08. He will run a world-wide video conference, supported by Journalism.co.uk, on ‘Is World Journalism in Crisis?’ in Coventry on October 28.

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Was Sarah Brown a Fabulous guest editor?

July 20th, 2009 | No Comments | Posted by in Magazines, Newspapers

After weeks of waiting with baited breath, the special edition of the News of the World Sunday, magazine guest-edited by First Lady Sarah Brown, offered plenty of real-life stories about baby-making but no stolen glimpses of Mrs Brown’s home life with the Prime Minister.

Yesterday’s edition of Fabulous magazine promoted the work of Wellbeing of Women (WoW), a charity aimed at raising awareness of women’s health, of which Brown is a patron.

The edition featured an ‘exclusive interview‘, conducted by Brown, with the wife of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver on her battle with infertility to produce three daughters. Jools Oliver gave birth to the star chef’s third child, Petal, last April, only two days after her husband cooked for the G20 world leaders at Downing Street.

In the Q&A-format interview, Oliver, 34, talked candidly to Brown about the physical and emotional challenges of undergoing fertility treatment. A three-spread feature portrayed other women, who conceived with the help of WoW.

The charity wants to raise £500,000 for a special research programme to help improve women’s reproductive and gynaecological health – £10,000 has already been donated by Fabulous.

Brown is said to have personally chosen the topics which would inspire readers to become involved with WoW. The special edition homed in on the message by featuring fashion and accessory items themed round the colour purple, WoW’s trademark colour, and going as far as including a travel feature on ‘The best baby-making breaks’. TV doctor Hilary Jones covered women’s health issues often considered ‘taboo’.

MediaGuardian deputy editor Vicky Frost, commented through her blog today that there was too much of WoW and too little of Brown’s life:

“I’m not saying she needed to star in the fashion shoot – although that really would have been fabulous – but what about a one-pager about life with her own kids, or healthy dinners she cooks,” Frost said.

The only information the PM’s life gave away in her guest-edited edition was that when it comes to their children’s education, Gordon who plays good cop.

Despite being described as the most accessible No 10 wife and a natural networker, Sarah Brown was a PR supremo before she married Gordon.

On Twitter, under username @SarahBrown10, the First Lady is known to mainly tweet supporting messages for her charities and talk excitedly about her home-grown strawberries – but not a single snippet of information about politics or her family life will slip out.

The News of the World had been tantalising its readers with banners showing Mrs Brown’s photo with the strapline ‘I will wow readers‘ leading up to the guest-edited magazine’s publication. If readers were led into thinking Mrs Brown would make exclusive revelations about her personal life, they were in for a disappointment. As her tweets testify, she prefers to portray her day-to-day as being fairly homely and mundane: “Have emerged from a weekend of gardening, baking cakes and cookies.”

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Marc Vallée: The Met’s new photography guidelines

Photojournalist Marc Vallée comments on the new guidelines issued by the Metropolitan police service (MPS) for the public and the media on photography in public places, over at the Guardian’s Comment is Free. Full post at this link. He writes:

“It details the Met’s interpretation of anti-terrorism legislation, and how these laws should be used against photographers. Professional photographers such as myself view it as part of an ongoing campaign to create a hostile environment for photography in the public sphere.”

One area highlighted by Vallée:

The advice covers section 44, section 43 and section 58a of the Terrorism Act 2000 (58a is more commonly known as section 76). On sections 44 and 43, the MPS say that “officers have the power to view digital images contained in mobile telephones or cameras carried by a person searched”.

Vallée says that guidance for section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act 2008, which came into force at the beginning of this year, is key.

“It amends the Terrorism Act 2000 to make it an offence to elicit or attempt to elicit information about an individual who is or has been a member of the armed forces, intelligence services, or a police officer in Great Britain – this has been an offence in Northern Ireland since 2000.”

What does the guidance say?

The MPS advice says that section 76 (58a) “should ordinarily be considered inappropriate to use… to arrest people photographing police officers in the course of normal policing activities, including protests”.

What does Vallée say?

“Section 76 should be scrapped.”

Guidelines at this link…

Vallée spoke about these issues at the Frontline Club this week. Video below:

Background on Journalism.co.uk Editors’ blog:

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Frontline Club: The media and anti-terrorism laws 7pm GMT

Watch the Frontline’s event on the media and anti-terrorism legislation here, at 7pm tonight:

Here’s the run-down from the Frontline Club:

[also see Marc Vallée's blog]

An ‘On The Media’ discussion in association with the BBC College of Journalism

How concerned should photographers and journalists be about anti-terrorism legislation that came into force earlier this year making people taking pictures of the police potentially subject to fines or even arrest? A mass picture-taking event outside Scotland Yard organised by the National Union of Journalists earlier this year reflected widespread concerns that section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act would extend powers already being used to harass photographers.

Under the Act eliciting, publishing or communicating information on members of the armed forces, intelligence services and police officers ‘likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’ is subject to a 10 year maximum sentence.

The Home Office has insisted that the Act does not target the press but the number of photographers and camera crews who claim they have been prevented from taking pictures has increased.

On the other side of the lens there is growing evidence that Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) are not only collating information on protestors and campaigners but also photographers and journalists who report on demonstrations.

The emergence of video footage following the death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests in April demonstrates how significant images can be.

Claims by Val Swain and Emily Apple that they were unlawfully arrested during the Kingsnorth Climate Camp has again put the spotlight on the issue of police surveillance at demonstrations. And also raises questions about the status of citizen journalists in the eyes of the police.

How much of a challenge to the freedom of the press photographers, freelances of citizen journalists – to bear witness during protests could Section 76 become?

Panel: Peter Clarke, former head of counter terrorism for Scotland Yard

Marc Vallée is a London based photojournalist who is currently working on a long-term project to document political protest and dissent in modern Britain

Turi Munthe, CEO of Demotix, a citizen-journalism website and freelance photo agency

Angus Walker, UK editor, ITV News

Moderator: Margaret Gilmore is a freelance writer and broadcaster and senior research fellow with the leading independent think tank, RUSI, where she specialises in homeland security, covering terrorism and Olympic security

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Tips and thoughts for journalists from Bloomberg’s former multimedia editor

June 4th, 2009 | No Comments | Posted by in Journalism, Multimedia, Training

Last week (Thursday May 28) Bloomberg’s former multimedia editor, Abhik Sen, spoke to journalism students at City University on a range of topics:

MPs’ expenses:
Revelations about MPs’ expenses would not have had as much impact if the story had been broken online, the former editor of multimedia at Bloomberg told students. “There are still some stories which work much better in traditional formats,” he said. “The MPs’ expenses story could have been broken in any format but it would not have had the same impact if it hadn’t been print.”

“The resulting chaos in Westminster probably would not have happened if it had broken on a blog or website. That medium just doesn’t have the same impact as the front page of a newspaper does.”

Sen added that the gradual ‘drip feed’ of information in the daily papers and sustained ‘wall-to-wall coverage’ in the Daily Telegraph allowed the story to build a momentum that would not have been possible in the rolling news environment of the web.

Where multimedia works best
He emphasised that online journalism continued to surpass traditional formats in  providing ‘more detailed, more thoughtful’ coverage and a ‘360 degree view’ of any story.

“For the swine flu story, for example, you get the headlines in the newspapers and the footage on the television channels, but for a comprehensive view you have to go online and look at videos, stories, first person pieces, interactive graphics, maps,” he said. “That rule holds true for pretty much every big story, from Obama to climate change.”

“TV and newspapers are the entry point for the news cycle,” he added. “Only people who are particularly interested in a story will then go digging for more stuff online. But that’s when they will expect comprehensive, meaty content.

“Then, multimedia journalists have to take the game to the next level: beyond the headline, beyond the immediate soundbite.”

Sen’s tips for journalists
“In tomorrow’s world, which is pretty much today’s world, there is no media organisation which is not thinking multiplatform,” the former multimedia editor at Bloomberg. “Everyone will have to be a multimedia journalist of some sort. The earlier you get familiar with the grammar of multimedia, the easier and better it will be.”

  • Planning is important. “Most bad multimedia pieces flounder because not enough thought has been put into what you are trying to communicate,” he warned. “Think about how your story could best be told and what sort of interactivity you want to offer.”
  • Get creative. The challenge for multimedia journalists covering diary stories, such as the G20 protests, is to find a way of reporting that is “original, refreshing, different from the newspapers and television, and yet complimentary,” said Sen. “You must build on what others have done, but also do what others cannot do.”
  • Think flavour, not just facts. “In a multimedia piece, you need to convey not just who was there and what happened, but what was it really like?” he said. “You need to capture things that make the piece alive. They might look small at production stage, but become really interesting and useful at the editing table.”
  • Less is more. “Five minutes is an eternity in news time,” he warned. “Most multimedia pieces won’t ever run for more than a few minutes.”
  • Always shoot action and emotion. “It doesn’t need to be someone fighting a war, but you need mobility or some dynamic element,” he advised. “It might be someone’s eyes floating from left to right, clinking glasses, natural sunlight.”
  • Develop skills beyond conventional journalism, or work with somebody who has. “A graphic designer is critical to a multimedia project,” said Sen. “It’s up to them to bring all the elements together and present them in a way that can either make or break a multimedia piece.”
  • Keep the big picture in mind. Remember that neither audio or visual will ever work alone in a final multimedia production. “They will be next to text, or on top of a picture, so always have an idea of the final product in mind,” said Sen. “Then you don’t always have to face the dilemma of dropping or cutting to fit.”
  • But if in doubt: “Shoot first, make up your mind later,” he advised.

Sen, who spent more than a decade as a television and newspaper journalist before joining Bloomberg, added that these skills should be developed in addition to, not at the expense of, the traditional journalist’s toolkit. “The nuts and bolts remain the same. Good journalism, solid reporting, news judgement and good writing skills are as important online as off,” he said.

Sen’s favourite multimedia packages:

  • Economy Tracker by CNN: “Somebody has done the hard work of crunching numbers and then somebody has made it into a really visual, interesting piece of work,” said Sen. “It’s a good example of telling a big story simply but effectively”.

Related link:

Alison Battisby’s report on her blog: ‘Everyone will be a multimedia journalist,’ says ex-Bloomberg editor.

Lara King is a freelance journalist and blogs on the media at www.lara-king.co.uk.

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Video: Commander Bob Broadhurst at the NUJ’s photography conference

Some interesting comments in the video below (courtesy of Paula Geraghty) of Metropolitan Police commander Bob Broadhurst on the police’s relationship with photographers, public order policing and the recent G20 coverage.

“If you look at those images around G20 and the climate camp at the other end of the road, some of our officers had huge problems doing anything with the crowd because of the phalanx of cameras in front of them before they could get to anybody,” says Broadhurst, who was speaking at the National Union of Journalists’ (NUJ) photography conference.

“Legitimate? Maybe yes, but we do seem now to be in a new dynamic; certainly because of the way some of the G20 events were portrayed in the media, by the time anybody turned up most of the ground was already taken up by competing camera crews and journalists looking for a story, All that does is add to the mix that our officers have to deal with. We need to work our way through that. Let’s have a more sensible dialogue.”

Commander Bob Broadhurst at NUJ Photography Conference from Paula Geraghty on Vimeo.

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