Open Journalism Leads The Way In Investigating The Crash Of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17
from the just-the-facts dept
Several days after the crash of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in Ukraine, still very little is known about what happened. Things are made much more difficult by the refusal of local armed groups to allow inspectors full and free access to the crash site. It is in precisely this context, where traditional reporting finds it hard to provide useful information, that an alternative — open journalism — shows its strengths.
One of the central questions concerning the MH17 crash is who fired the missile that seems to have been responsible for its destruction. In the absence of official news, it’s natural to turn to the Internet, putting together the many scattered pieces of information to form an overall picture of what happened. That’s what the Open Newsroom project has done, as explained here on the Storyful blog:
As images and videos purporting to show the missile system in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine began to flood in, Storyful, alongside other journalists and social media experts in our Open Newsroom and elsewhere, worked to verify this information and determine the veracity of these claims. From the images and videos, we were able to determine that members of the Donetsk People’s Republic separatist militia, at the very least, did appear to have access to an anti-aircraft system capable of an attack like the one carried out on MH17.
Open Newsroom was launched last year by Storyful, now owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Here’s a good explanation of the thinking behind the site, and of the benefits of working collaboratively, in the open:
In the competitive, now-is-the-deadline world of news, sharing information openly is a tough thing for news organisations to come to terms with. Traditionally, you don’t share a half-baked story before it’s ready, and risk losing a scoop to a competitor. That’s just madness. Because Storyful provides journalism as a service, our news clients obviously don’t want us doing that either. They want what we find first.
There are times, however, where the scoop isn’t the goal, and where being open about your processes benefits everyone. Where there’s a fake image or document being circulated, it serves the entire media to help stop it in its tracks. It serves to slow down ridiculous speculation, which only adds to the noise and obscures the facts.
Doing this effectively can mean drawing in the people who are best placed to help. That demands a certain amount of openness and vulnerability. You need to share what you already know in order to allow others to build on it. And sometimes, the best-placed people will be other journalists.
So we’re creating a space for that on Google+, and with a small, experimental group, it’s looking really promising. We have had contributions from independent journalists like Eliot Higgins and James Miller, NGO experts like Peter Bouckaert (Human Rights Watch) and Christopher Koettl (Amnesty International) and a host of others chipping in, along with members of Storyful’s editorial team.
Eliot Higgins, mentioned there, and who writes under the pen name of Brown Moses, is one of the pioneers of open journalism. He is probably best known as the unemployed Briton who became the world’s leading expert on Syria’s weapons, purely using open source information found on the Internet — central to open journalism. As Mathew Ingram explains:
One of the most fascinating things about Brown Moses from a journalistic point of view is that he is completely self-taught, and gets no income from what he does — he appears to be motivated purely by curiosity, and a desire to get the truth out where everyone can see it, something that is a fundamentally journalistic impulse. And yet he has no training as a journalist, and probably wouldn’t qualify as one even under the broadest interpretation of a recent U.S. “shield law” aimed at protecting journalists.
Higgins has also been working on locating the missile launcher using open resources, and he has just announced a Kickstarter project called Bellingcat, which “will unite citizen investigative journalists to use open source information to report on issues that are being ignored”:
Bellingcat will bring together both critically acclaimed and emerging citizen investigative journalists using open source information to investigate, collaborate, and report on worldwide issues that are being underreported and ignored.
Open source information, which is information freely available to anyone through the Internet — think YouTube, Google Maps, Reddit — has made it possible for ANYONE to gather information and source others, through social media networks. Think the Syrian Civil War. Think the Arab Spring.
At a time when newspapers and magazines have diminishing resources for detailed and possibly long-term research on important but often obscure stories, and when journalism is increasingly constrained by governments and companies in terms of what they are allowed to report on — even in supposedly “free” Western societies — open journalism is likely to play an increasingly important role in verifying and reporting on the facts that the powerful do no want exposed. And those are, after all, the only kind that really count.