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#newsrw: Heather Brooke – ‘How do any journalists in the UK do their job?’

The main difficulty for data journalist in the UK is gaining access to meaningful data, Heather Brooke said in her keynote speech at news:rewired – noise to signal.

Brooke, a journalist, author and freedom-of-information campaigner, who is best known for her role in bringing the MPs expenses to light and who went on to work with the Guardian on the WikiLeaks cables, compared the difficulty in accessing data in the UK compared with the US, where she trained and worked as a political journalist and a crime reporter.

When working in the US, Brook explained how she was “heavily reliant on public records” and said the “underpinning of my journalism was state records”. As a crime reporter she used a police scanner, likening it to those familiar with US series ‘The Wire’.

“As a journalist I would decide what the story was,” she said, based on the data from public records. She was able to note patterns in the incident reports and able to notice a spate in domestic violence, for example.

Brooke told of how many UK police forces limit the release of their data to media messages left on a voice bank.

Public bodies in the UK “control the data, they control the public perception of the story,” she said.

“How do any journalists in the UK do their job?” she asked. And it was that problematic question that led her to becoming an FOI campaigner.

When she asked for receipts for US politicians’ expense claims in the States, she had them within a couple of days.

It was a different story in the UK. It took her five years and several court cases, including taking the case to the High Court which led to the release of second home allowance for 10 MPs.

The House of Commons “sticking their feet on the ground” refused to release further data, which had been scanned in by the fees office.

A CD of the data which was touted round Fleet Street and sold for £110,000.

The Telegraph, rather than Brooke, then had the data and had to verify and cross check it.

What is purpose as journalists in the digital age?

Brooke’s answer to that question is that “we need to change an unhelpful attitude” of public records being withheld.

“The information exists as if they own it”, she said.

“They don’t want negative information to come out” and they want to try and manage their reputation, she said in what she described as “the take over of public relations”.

“We need to be campaigning for these sets of data” and gave the examples of courts and the release of files.

“We make the FOI request and that should open the whole tranche of data so any other journalist can go back and use it for their reporting.”

She said data journalism is “not just about learning how to use Excel spreadsheets but you have to have something to put in those spreadsheets”.

Brooke made a “rallying cry” as to why professional journalists, particularly those who practice investigative journalism, are vital.

The “one unique selling point, why people would come to a professional news organisation” is the training and experience journalists have in “sifting through for what is important and what is true”.

Brooke said as people have more and more information, a journalist’s role is distilling and signposting the information.

The second key point she made is journalists must establish “what is true”.

When a politician claims that crime has gone down, a journalist must be able to verify it and “test the truthfulness” of it, she said.

She explained that journalists need to know how that data was collected and, ideally, have access the data itself.

Brooke told how she tried to pitch stories on MPs expenses on an almost daily basis before they came to light. She said editors thought it was a non-story and “almost took the word of parliament” and had the perception that the public was not interested. But they were.

“It’s a symptom of the public not having meaningful information and are not able to take action. That’s our role as professional journalists.”

This article is a cross post. It was originally published on news:rewired.

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What was ‘first’ about tweeting from the Julian Assange bail hearing?

December 15th, 2010 | 2 Comments | Posted by in Legal

There was a great deal of excitement amongst media commentators and Twitterers during the bail hearing of WikiLeaks’ editor Julian Assange. As if Assange’s second bail attempt wasn’t enough of a news story, the judge at Westminster Magistrates’ Court gave permission for those watching in the court – specifically the Times’ special correspondent Alexi Mostrous – to tweet from court. Mostrous and journalist Heather Brooke’s updates from the scene were fascinating to follow:

There is no statutory ban on tweeting form court, as the Guardian’s Siobhain Butterworth explains in this excellent piece from July:

The Contempt of Court Act 1981 does not allow sound recordings to be made without the court’s permission. It’s also an offence to take photographs or make sketches (in court) of judges, jurors and witnesses – although the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 says that doesn’t apply to the supreme court. Since there isn’t a statutory ban on creating text by means of electronic devices, it surprises me that journalists and bloggers haven’t already lobbied British judges about reporting directly from the courtroom.

Speaking to Journalism.co.uk, barrister and former government lawyer Carl Gardner explained that there is the idea that jurors should not Twitter, “which raises particular issues of its own”.

What I think the courts don’t want is people using devices that make noises, or typing constantly, or even getting messages that make them keep getting up all the time. That I think is the reason for the normal court etiquette of switching off phones (silencing isn’t good enough; as in cinemas, people forget and trials end up being disrupted). So if a judge was sure people could tweet silently and that it wouldn’t disrupt proceedings, it wouldn’t amaze me if he/she permitted it.

I think tweeting from court could be a good development – subject to certain restrictions, such as jurors not looking at Twitter while on a case. I worry a bit though that it’s an unsatisfactory half-way house to transparency, though. People can tweet misleadingly and selectively, even without meaning to. For live cases of special interest like Julian Assange, what we really need is televised justice. Good reporting will do for cases of less immediate interest.

Claims that yesterday’s tweeting from the Assange hearing was a first in UK courts need a bit of explaining. It may well have been the first time a magistrate or judge has expressly given permission – although it was in response to a question from Mostrous and not an unprompted declaration. Several legal commentators I have spoken with suggest this, but it is difficult to track and the Justice Department, on the face of it, does not seem to keep a database of such decisions.

As there is currently no statutory ban, there have been previous occurrences of live-tweeting court cases in the UK. Ben Kendall, crime correspondent for the Eastern Daily Press and Norwich Evening News, for example, tweeted from within the courtroom when covering the John Moody murder trial in August. As he told Journalism.co.uk, he didn’t ask the judge for permission to tweet as there’s no ban, he has a good relationship with the court and “figured they’d pull me up on it if there was a problem”.

But Assange’s hearing was a significant case to be allowed to tweet from nonetheless – but what are the pitfalls and benefits of live-tweeting judicial proceedings? The UK Human Rights blog has this to say:

Despite its sophistication, in an ordinary case with no reporting restrictions in place, tweeting does not, on the face of it, pose any danger to the administration of justice. Rather, the ability for people to produce a live feed of selected information from a hearing could improve public understanding of the justice system. But it is by no means an ideal channel through which to communicate details of a complicated hearing.

It is unsurprising that the case of an man credited with improving transparency in government (while causing headaches for diplomats, soldiers and spies) could result in a watershed for the use of social networking in court. Perhaps the slow but steady opening up to social media by judges will eventually lead to a softening of the attitudes towards live video feeds. And that would mark a huge improvement for open justice.

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#iweu: The web data revolution – a new future for journalism?

November 15th, 2010 | 1 Comment | Posted by in Data, Events, Investigative journalism

David McCandless, excited about data

Rounding off Internet Week Europe on Friday afternoon, the Guardian put on a panel discussion in its Scott Room on journalism and data: ‘The web data revolution – a new future for journalism’.

Taking part were Simon Rogers, David McCandless, Heather Brooke, Simon Jeffery and Richard Pope, with Dr Aleks Krotoski moderating.

McCandless, a leading designer and author of data visuals book Information is Beautiful, made three concise, important points about data visualisations:

  • They are relatively easy to process;
  • They can have a high and fast cognitive impact;
  • They often circulate widely online.

Large, unwieldy datasets share none of those traits, they are extremely difficult and slow to process and pretty unlikely to go viral. So, as McCandless’ various graphics showed – from a light-hearted graph charting when couples are most likely to break up to a powerful demonstration of the extent to which the US military budget dwarfs health and aid spending – visualisations are an excellent way to make information accessible and understandable. Not a new way, as the Guardian’s data blog editor Simon Rogers demonstrated with a graphically-assisted report by Florence Nightingale, but one that is proving more and more popular as a means to tell a story.

David McCandless: Peak break-up times, according to Facebook status updates

But, as one audience member pointed out, large datasets are vulnerable to very selective interpretation. As McCandless’ own analysis showed, there are several different ways to measure and compare the world’s armies, with dramatically different results. So, Aleks Krotoski asked the panel, how can we guard against confusion, or our own prejudices interfering, or, worse, wilful misrepresentation of the facts?

McCandless’ solution is three-pronged: firstly, he publishes drafts and works-in-progress; secondly, he keeps himself accountable by test-driving his latest visualisations on a 25-strong group he created from his strongest online critics; third, and most important, he publishes all the raw data behind his work using Google docs.

Access to raw data was the driving force behind Heather Brooke’s first foray into FOI requests and data, she told the Scott Room audience. Distressed at the time it took her local police force to respond to 999 calls, she began examining the stats in order to build up a better picture of response times. She said the discrepancy between the facts and the police claims emphasised the importance of access to government data.

Prior to the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs release that catapulted WikiLeaks into the headlines – and undoubtedly saw the Guardian data team come on in leaps and bounds – founder Julian Assange called for the publishing of all raw data alongside stories to be standard journalistic practice.

You can’t publish a paper on physics without the full experimental data and results, that should be the standard in journalism. You can’t do it in newspapers because there isn’t enough space, but now with the internet there is.

As Simon Rogers pointed out, the journalistic process can no longer afford to be about simply “chucking it out there” to “a grateful public”. There will inevitably be people out there able to bring greater expertise to bear on a particular dataset than you.

But, opening up access to vast swathes of data is one thing, and knowing how to interpret that data is another. In all likelihood, simple, accessible interfaces for organising and analysing data will become more and more commonplace. For the release of the 400,000-document Iraq war logs, OWNI.fr worked with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to create a program to help people analyse the extraordinary amount of data available.

Simply knowing where to look and what to trust is perhaps the first problem for amateurs. Looking forward, Brooke suggested aggregating some data about data. For example, a resource that could tell people where to look for certain information, what data is relevant and up to date, how to interpret the numbers properly.

So does data – ‘the new oil’ – signal a “revolution” or a “new future” for journalism? I am inclined to agree with Brooke’s remark that data will become simply another tool in the journalists armoury, rather than reshape things entirely. As she said, nobody is talking about ‘telephone-assisted reporting’, completely new once upon a time, it’s just called reporting. Soon enough, the ‘computer-assisted reporting’ course she teaches now at City University will just be ‘reporting’ too.

See also:

Guardian information architect Martin Belam has a post up about the event on his blog, currybetdotnet

Digital journalist Sarah Booker liveblogged presentations by Heather Brooke, David McCandless and Simon Rogers.

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Are you on the j-list? The leading innovators in journalism and media in 2010

July 22nd, 2010 | 14 Comments | Posted by in Journalism, Online Journalism

Updated 05/08/2010

Recent industry lists ranking the great and good in journalism and the media fell a bit short of the mark for Journalism.co.uk. Where were the online innovators? Where were the journalists on the ground outside of the executives’ offices?

So we’ve compiled our own rundown listing those people we think are helping to build the future of journalism and the news media.

Some important points to note:

  • There are no rankings to this list – those included are from such varied areas of work it seemed pointless;
  • We will have missed some people out – let us know in the comments below or with the hashtag #jlist who you are working with that should be included;
  • We’ve listed groups as well as individuals – with individuals we hope you’ll see them as representing a wider team of people, who have worked together on something great;
  • And it’s not limited to 50 or 100 – we’ll see where it takes us…

So here’s the first batch. There’s a Twitter list of those included so far at this link and more will be added in the coming weeks.

Click on the ‘more’ link after these five to to see the full list.

Tomáš Bella

Tomáš Bella was editor-in-chief and deputy director of Sme.sk, the Slovak republic’s most popular news site. He was author of the first European newspaper-owned blogportal (blog.sme.sk, 2004) and the first digg-like service (vybrali.sme.sk, 2006). In April 2010 he co-founded Prague-based new media consultancy NextBig.cz and is working on a payment system to allow the access to all the premium content of major newspapers and TV stations with one payment.

Paul Steiger

While ProPublica’s not-for-profit, foundation-funded model may be something commercial news organisations can never share, its investment in and triumphing of investigative and data journalism cannot be overlooked. The way in which it involves a network of readers in its research and actively encourages other sites to “steal” its stories shows a new way of thinking about journalism’s watchdog role. Image courtesy of the Knight Foundation on Flickr.

Chris Taggart

Paul Bradshaw’s description of his fellow j-lister: “Chris has been working so hard on open data in 2010 I expect steam to pour from the soles of his shoes every time I see him. His ambition to free up local government data is laudable and, until recently, unfashionable. And he deserves all the support and recognition he gets.”

Ian Hislop/Private Eye

Not much to look at on the web perhaps, but the Eye’s successful mixture of satire, humour and heavyweight investigations has seen its circulation rise. It blaized a trail during the Carter-Ruck and Trafigura gagging ordeal and has even lent it’s support to j-list fellow the Hackney Citizen to protect press freedom from international to hyperlocal levels. Image courtesy of Nikki Montefiore on Flickr.

Brian Boyer

Amidst the talk of what journalists can learn from programmers and what coding skills, if any, journalists need, Brian Boyer was making the move the other way from programming to a programmer-journalist. His university and personal projects in this field have been innovative and have got him noticed by many a news organisation – not least the Chicago Tribune, where he now works as a news applications editor. He blogs at Hacker Journalist.

Ushahidi

Originally built to map reports from citizens of post-election violence in Kenya, Ushahidi’s development of interactive, collaborative and open source mapping technology has been adopted by aid agencies and news organisations alike. It’s a new means of storytelling and a project that’s likely to develop more tools for journalists in the future.

More »

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Heather Brooke: ‘PR is infecting public institutions and destroying our democracy’

March 29th, 2010 | 3 Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Journalism, Newspapers

In the latest extract of Heather Brooke’s book, ‘The Silent State’, published in the Mail on Sunday yesterday, the investigative journalist looks at the effect of PR in public institutions.

On council-run newspapers:

My prediction is this: the more officials take over the news the more our money will be wasted. Scrutiny by the public keeps the powerful honest.

And on trying to reach officials:

PR people have manoeuvred themselves to the top of the political pole. Even senior managers have to get clearance from the Press office to speak to the public.

Full post at this link…

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Heather Brooke: ‘Transparency keeps those in power honest’

In case you missed reading an extract of Heather Brooke’s new book, ‘The Silent State’, in the Mail on Sunday, here’s a link…

A second excerpt will be published next Sunday. Last weekend’s extract focused on expenses.

An early reporting experience in America taught her ” that transparency keeps those in power honest: more than any regulator, any bureaucracy or set of rules,” she writes.

The Telegraph did a phenomenal job presenting the data, and I don’t begrudge them anything, even if they did take away my scoop.

Brooke collected the judge’s award at last night’s British Press Awards for her campaigning over MPs’ expenses.

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MediaGuardian: British Press Awards results

The Guardian has the full results from last night’s British Press Awards: the Telegraph took the big one, for newspaper of the year, while the Guardian’s Paul Lewis walked away with reporter of the year. Overall, the Telegraph won six prizes for its expenses story, including journalist of the year for its editor Will Lewis.

Heather Brooke got acknowledgement for her role in the expenses exposé, with a judge’s award. The Guardian reports:

The judges’s award went to freelance journalist and freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke whose tireless campaigning did so much to keep the story in the public eye. She praised the Telegraph for doing a brilliant job but appealed to Fleet Street to be more co-operative on major stories.

“I don’t begrudge the Telegraph and I hope they don’t begrudge me. The fact is I’m fucking proud,” she said.

Full story at this link…

There’s a Guardian Twitter liveblog too, if you want to catch up with it as it happened.

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BBC iPlayer: On Expenses

Missed last night’s BBC Four drama about American journalist Heather Brooke’s fight for the disclosure of MPs’ expenses?

Catch up here: BBC iPlayer at this link.

Jon Slattery praised the show on his blog, saying it showed how much the public owed freelance journalist Brooke, for expenses exposure.

Brooke told Journalism.co.uk she hoped the film would help people understand the importance of investigative journalism and the role they play in holding political leaders to account: “If we don’t want corruption then we each have some responsibility, if only to care about where our taxes are going.”

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Heather Brooke on how British journalists avoid accountability by not naming sources

British journalism was under attack from two fronts this week. Satoshi Kanazawa, evolutionary psychologist at the London school of Economics accused the UK press of making things up. And on Charlie Brooker’s satirical TV show Newswipe Heather Brooke, investigative journalist and freedom of information campaigner, lambasts UK journalists for not always attributing official sources and therefore avoiding accountability. [Update: watch the video and read Brooke’s comment to understand the difference between protecting confidential sources and not naming official spokespeople…]

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Heather Brooke and Telegraph named in PSA Awards

November 25th, 2009 | No Comments | Posted by in Events

Reporting on the MPs’ expenses scandal was recognised yesterday with awards for both the Telegraph and investigative journalist Heather Brooke.

Brooke took the ‘Influencing the Political Agenda’ prize at the Political Studies Association (PSA) Awards for her ‘tireless and inspiring’ campaign to uncover details of MPs’ expenses.

The Daily Telegraph was named as best political publication of the year for its investigation into MPs’ expenses; while the BBC’s Newsnight and business editor Robert Peston also received prizes.

The full list of PSA Awards winners is available at this link.

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