I’ve had my eye on the CIJ for a while. Unique in the UK, this small but growing organisation champions investigative reporting, through classes, online resources, and advice for journalists. For a freelancer working without the backing of a big organisation, the CIJ provides a way to start learning some highly specialised skills.
At first I thought I’d go for the sexy side of the summer school – such as the class in hidden cameras and secret filming with Roddy Mansfield of Sky and Mark Daly, the BBC reporter who uncovered serious racism in the Greater Manchester Police force. But it was the more geeky classes in computer assisted reporting, or CAR, that hooked my imagination.
Using spreadsheets like Excel and MySQL to analyse data sets may sound terrifying to most of us numerically challenged journalists, but the classes by Aron Pilhofer, James Ball (the Grocer) and Jennifer LaFleur (Pro-Publica) showed me that it’s by no means rocket science.
But why bother?
Firstly, it’s a great source of totally original stories. Pop a data set – be it MEP’s expenses, or the distribution of traffic tickets issued in Manchester – into a spreedsheet, and get the computer to look for patterns – and suddenly, stories emerge from the digits. Robert Kilroy Silk, for example, is our most costly MEP – effectively he gets 6,000 in expenses per speech in the European Parliament!
Secondly, it’s a solid source for your stories. Most journalists get into the habit of relying on our human and skills to find and build stories. We talk to people. A says this, B says that. We exect others to do the analysis for us. It’s quick, easy, and safer. But it leads to inconclusive stories.
Raw data, on the other hand, takes more work at first, but because it’s a solid source, it leads to solid stories.
Whilst I’m sold on the computer assisted reporting, I wonder when I’ll get to use the skills I learnt on the course. It’s takes time, patience, and above all, instincts on where to look for those nice shiny needles in all those pesky haystacks.
Ian Hislop of Private Eye, who gave the summer schools key note speech, had a different approach. “People just bring the stories to us”, he said. The Eye has flown a flag of such fearless reporting for so long, that it has become a magnet for stories for people to leak – a reputation paid for with countless libel actions. The magazines low overheads (cheap crappy paper, and, according to Hislop, low wages!) mean it can save most of it’s money for legal costs.
The CIJ is running against the current of British Journalism, which, as books like Nick Davies Flat Earth News suggest, is becoming more and more about recycling – using wire copy, agencies, and rip-and-reading other people’s stories. Our abilities to find and recognise truly original content atrophies. But the great thing for those journalists willing to start excercising those muscles again, is that we will be one a very small number with a truly unique skillset.