The modern journalist’s role is not merely to report news, but to filter and distil masses of information that matters to the public and present it so they can act on it.
And reporters have to realise that supposedly independent government officials will always try to keep data secret where it might cause a negative headline.
That stirring call to arms is from Heather Brooke – journalist and freedom of information (FOI) campaigner – who was the keynote speaker at Journalism.co.uk’s fourth news:rewired event on Friday, at Reuters’ London HQ.
Brooke’s FOI requests led to the release (via an unplanned leak to the Telegraph) of every MPs’ expense claims, which resulted in perhaps the most critical constitutional and political crisis in modern times. And her advice is timely…
Breaking down the backroom deals in news
Brooke learned her trade as a crime reporter in the US, where access to incident reports and other data is guaranteed. She came to the UK in 1997 the UK, and here it’s a different story, involving cosy private relationships between reporters and gatekeepers:
That’s why I became a campaigner for freedom of information in Britain – I didn’t like the way it was done here. It always came with strings attached, it was favouritism, it was about who you knew – so if you did something for them, they would do something for you.
So the agenda is decided by the people that have access to the information, not the media, whose job it should be to interpret data. As any regional hack knows, police “voicebank” phonelines – where coppers tell reporters what has happened in the last 24 hours, but seem to think police-run family fun days are breaking news – are very close to being worthless. Is this how the police-reporter relationship will always be?
Civil servants as PR gatekeepers
The people with access to official information – usually PR and communications staff, but not always – had “an unhelpful attitude”, says Brooke: “People forget that they are there to serve the public. They think the information is theirs, that they own it.”
This is what’s happening across the world: they [officials] are trying to manage the reputation of their institution. We need to understand that in our data journalism. We need to make them understand that this [disclosure] is good for them above all.
This rings very true. Why are civil servants – who work for the public, not political parties – so careful about releasing information? Because it could genuinely negatively affect them in their jobs and their lives. But this is government by Daily Mail, not open disclosure for the public good.
Journalists’ data roles
“The journalist’s role is managing all this data and distilling it down into what is important to the public,” she says. And, without wanting to get into a “Is ice cream strawberry” style debate, for Brooke the interrogation of data is specifically what separates professional journalists from amateurs.
All that gathering data, checking, getting statements… this verification takes time and it takes money. But what many media organisations are forgetting is that this marks out a professional from a blogger or non-professional.
Brooke’s talk reminded me of the tenacity shown by journalist Chris Wheal in a conversation with a Treasury PR manager who was being mystifyingly unhelpful with his reasonable request for data (I wrote about it here).
It’s an uphill struggle finding the data you need to tell stories fully in the UK. But if you don’t take no for an answer, that’s a good place to start.
- #newsrw: Heather Brooke – ‘How do any journalists in the UK do their job?’ (blogs.journalism.co.uk)
- #newsrw – Heather Brooke on the UK’s culture of secrecy (onemanandhisblog.com)
- How to be a reporter in a digital age: still don’t take no for an answer (psmithjournalist.com)