Credit: Image by Markus Distelrath from Pixabay

When you think of public interest news, it is easy to think of council meetings and local politics. But the broader national and international investigations also fall under this banner.

At last week's IMPRESS Trust In Journalism conference, two prominent investigative journalists shared notes on how they work differently to uncover the truth, and how they avoid being seen as advocates for the subjects of their journalism.

Bellingcat is widely considered as a pioneer in open-source journalism and investigations. Central to that reporting is geolocation and satellite imagery to verify public data and citizen journalist intel. As seen around August year with its work around the Beirut Explosion, it can apply a number of techniques to pick at video and audio to debunk falsehoods around what caused the explosion.

Founder and executive director of Bellingcat, Eliot Higgins spoke to Amelia Gentleman, a Guardian reporter who is known best for her journalism on the Windrush scandal. These stories have revealed how some people who came to the UK from British territories in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Commonwealth were deported, despite having legal rights to live in the UK.

Finding your spark

Gentleman has spent ten years looking at government policy, though she is not a Westminster correspondent. Her passion for the job comes from converting complex policy into understandable topics through human stories and interviews. The Windrush reporting is an example of that.

This generally means her starting point is a policy with, at least, the potential to negatively impact the people for whom it was written.

"If I'm writing about something I feel uneasy about and something I think is wrong, that is quite a powerful motivator," she says.

"I'm a tiny bit cautious when I say that because I'm a news reporter and I resist the categorisation of 'campaigning journalist'. Really, my job is to report on things [accurately and] in a fairly neutral way on paper, but the selection of what you write about is the key part of the process."

Higgins' cited collaboration as the key drive of Bellingcat, and working with organisations which provide new expertise. It has recently started working with UK research agency Forensic Architecture which resulted in, for example, new ways to visualise police violence against Black Lives Matter protesters in the US.

"We combine all our different areas of expertise and then we turn it into one collection of information [with] multiple outcomes, not just in a journalistic sense," he explains.

The impact comes from other advocates, policymakers and news organisations who can then process this open-source information for their own objectives.

Campaigning journalism?

Most reporters will tell you they want their stories to have an impact in the real world. As Gentleman said, she has found satisfaction in her reporting resulting in policy reform, pointing out that covering something which is demonstrably wrong is legitimate journalism.

The issue comes when journalists and news organisations begin to become tied to a movement or campaign.

"My hesitation around being a campaigning journalist is that you are ultimately writing to inform your readers," she says.

"You don't want to be known as a campaigning journalist because it feels like you are going around with a frying pan trying to hit your readers on the head every time you write something, and I think it erodes your credibility or neutrality."

Higgins' said that because Bellingcat worked with public data, this was less of an issue as it was only contextualising what others could find out anyway. As such, he said, Bellingcat has never been about creating change, just pointing out when the facts do not add up.

Its reporting into a bombed Syrian Mosque in 2017 is a good example, which the US initially claimed was part of an airstrike on Al-Qaeda. Bellingcat jigsawed together satellite imagery, social media posts and even press releases to confirm that the rubble was in fact the mosque, not the training base it was claimed to be and the US had made a grave error (the story reads that it is still pending comment from CENTCOM and Pentagon).

"We didn't approach that as 'We want to change something' it was actually 'Here's something which is untrue and we've got evidence of that', so we're going to present that to the world and see what happens," Higgins says.

That said, there is a greater will to drive stories which highlight a real lack of awareness around public data, like its reporting on a UK money laundering machine, as this information is pertinent to UK parliamentary discussions.

Ethical considerations

Two different versions of public interest journalism inevitably give rise to different ethical considerations.

Gentleman's coverage often means her vulnerable sources become front page faces whose sensitive details are laid out bare. But her journalism has been a force for good, she said, proving catalytic to resolve the residential status crisis of those who have been misclassified, promoting the government to take action.

"A lot of this work is about giving a voice [to the voiceless] and those who have felt silenced for a long time, in one way it's an unquestionably good thing to help them to have space on the internet and in national newspapers to say exactly what has gone wrong," she says.

"On the other hand, it is fraught with worries because for anyone to see their face on the front page of a newspaper is a very stressful experience and a lot of people were worried about that exposure having a negative impact on their further dealings with the Home Office."

Journalists must also be correct in their position, she added, as to not escalate unfounded or incorrect concerns.

For Bellingcat, the stakes are huge. Higgins said his priority is protecting the victims without undermining the entirety of the story. Often reporting focuses on individuals around a guilty party. It is important in those cases to anonymise sources as to not make them targets.

Bellingcat also has a team of reporters to aid its investigations. Higgins concluded by saying that those staff members are often shielded from dark or conflict-based topics to not lead them down a potentially dangerous rabbit hole on the internet.

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