Innovation for journalism in the public interest. In Italy too.
“Journalism crowdsourcing is the act of specifically inviting a group of people to participate in a reporting task — such as newsgathering, data collection, or analysis — through a targeted, open call for input; personal experiences; documents; or other contributions.”
This is the definition of “crowdsourcing journalism” given by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism in New York; and reading the recently published guide, it is clear that there are numerous established experiences around the world, where
“crowdsourcing allows newsrooms to build audience entry points at every stage of the journalistic process — from story assigning, to pre-data collection, to data mining, to sharing specialized expertise, to collecting personal experiences and continuing post-story conversations”.
Among those, Propublica and The Guardian became role models. And it was precisely from a post on KnightBlog by Amanda Zamora, Senior Engagement Editor at ProPublica, that I learned, at the end of August, about the new working group that was being formed on the other side of the ocean to gather all media professionals who use crowdsourcing and actively engage communities to create journalism. That’s how #CPNN, Crowd-Powered News Network, came to life, currently counting more than 150 actors and projects who share methods, ideas and strategies to improve the way they make journalism and relate to their audience. A great source of inspiration and connection of good practices.
A working group where, Cittadini Reattivi, a gnome among giants, also found its place: the civic and data journalism project that I founded in 2013, uses all the tools of these disciplines to engage with citizens and collect their reports, both on the field and on social networks, while also focusing on raising awareness on the citizens’ right of access to health and environmental data.
Working on issues belonging to the public interest sphere, as a civic first and investigative journalist afterwards, I realised that citizens needed to get a better understanding of the environmental and health impact of the post-industrial era and, starting from there, ofthe resulting corruption and illegality, both inside and outside the institutions. Indeed investigative journalism on mainstream TV analysed these problems, but it hardly fitted anywhere else, for example on the web, and was less and less featured on the newspapers and in general in the Italian media system, crushed as it has always been between the political and the economic powers.
Since 2013 then, my journalistic investigations originated from stories collected on the crowd-mapping platform of Cittadini Reattivi, a project that does not just produce occasional information, but is meant to provide over time reliable communication and sharing tools (website, social media and crowdmapping), both for civic journalists and citizens themselves.
“Given this new world, completely transformed from the foundations; given this new operating system based on the network; given these cultural environments — yes, these are whole environments, not simply tools — journalism only has one possibility ahead: to put the readers back in the centre, with the alternative to that being the irrelevance and complete collapse of credibility and authoritativeness of journalism (already quite weakened)”.
This said Arianna Ciccone, co-founder of the International Journalism Festival in her speech at the University of Urbino, titled “Against newspapers for the sake of journalism” (Contro i giornali, per amore del giornalismo), where she analysed the situation of journalism in Italy in October 2014.
This is the key, “put the readers back in the centre”. The readers that are no longer “simply” such, but have become themselves actors and producers of information. And precisely to this population I’ve started asking for help a few years ago, to develop a different way of doing journalism. Experimenting and making mistakes, I finally established a method. Until not long ago, infact, it was impossible in Italy to plan and develop crowdsourced investigations, and similarly Social Media (from Twitter to Facebook groups) were, and still are, quite unusual tools to do investigations and establish relationships with the readership.
Abiding by the fundamental principles of accuracy, independence, completeness and legality, that according to Luca De Biase are indicators of good quality in journalism, and that become “method and algorithm when their responsible application is necessary in order to use common platforms”,
on those principles I built a code of conduct and ethics that, originally applied to the online platform, has been extended to social networks too (Facebook and Twitter). The founding element is an agreement with the community, which grew around Cittadini Reattivi thanks to a work of crowdmapping on the contaminated sites and a social map of stories of re-active citizens who wanted to personally tell their stories of civic engagement aimed at improving the quality of life.
Re-active citizens are those who first see problems on the ground and report them, usually much earlier than institutions. They want to protect their rights, their children’s health, the environment and make their community better and stronger. Each one of these groups have a social impact and the goal of Cittadini Reattivi is to multiply this impact by connecting the groups together, sharing information and experiences, acting as a watchdog of institutions, promoting open data and transparency. And making “Investigative Journalism in the Public Interest” in Italy too.
After the investigations that appeared in 2014 on La Nuova Ecologia “Veleni occulti” (Hidden poisons) and Nòva Il Sole 24 ore “Trasparenza civica per le bonifiche” (Civic transparency for site decontaminations), the first data-driven investigation saw the light on Wired in April 2015: “Il prezzo dell’amianto” (The price of Asbestos), originated from information, data and stories on the communities most affected by the so-called killer fibre in Italy, that were collected through the online platform of Cittadini Reattivi. Coordinated by Guido Romeo, and with the help of data journalists Gianluca De Martino and Davide Mancino, the work has married civic and data journalism.
The result was an investigation in the public interest where the first story has generated a very successful line of investigation which now counts more than 40 articles and received the support of 68,000 people who signed the petition #addioamianto (ByeByeAsbestos) on Change.org. Promoted by Wired, the petition (still open), addresses Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and the Minister for the Environment Gianluca Galletti, calling for transparency, 23 years after the killer fibre has been outlawed, but has killed more than 21,000 people (official figures) between 1993 and 2014.
Having said that, it is important to note that investigations in Italy are difficult, as all matters related to environment and public health are, due to lack of transparency, corruption and organised crime (“ecomafie”) and little access to open data. Italy is currently at the 73rd place in the World Press Freedom Index 2015 and we do not have a Freedom of Information Act (see the campaign Foia4Italy).
That’s why I launched a new multimedia crowdsourced investigation on a very dirty issue: trash. With a team of colleagues, Riccardo Saporiti, Mara Cinquepalmi, Gloria Schiavi, Federica Mazzei e Vince Cammarata, interested in sharing the method of civic journalism blended with data journalism and reportage, we want to focus on the management of trash: from policies that are too prone to incinerators, to a vacuum in the legislation that in fact favours illicit trafficking, but also to the good practices of recycling. Ideally, moving from ZeroRecycling to ZeroTrash (from #riciclozero to #rifiutizero).
In order to achieve our goal, we have also opened an online platform for whistleblowers, in collaboration with Hermes Center for Transparency and Digital Human Rights, that will allow us to gather information while protecting sources, crucial in these sort of investigations, who don’t want to disclose their identity. As in my previous works, we will use the citizens’ right to access official information, in a country that is still penalised by the lack of a real Freedom of Information Act (see the campaign Foia4italy), and by the incomplete application of the Convention of Ahrus that states the citizens’ rights to access environmental information.
This is a reason why I founded a not-for-profit association to promote journalism and civic education with a school of civic monitoring to increase knowledge of civic hacking, open data and the right to request access to information. The first training session of CIVIC INN, designed for journalists, took place a couple of weeks ago and gave us hope that journalists, activists and citizens could work together in Italy to give a new boost to information, such an important common good.
The session was organised in collaboration with data journalist Mara Cinquepalmi; experts in access to information, Guido Romeo for Diritto di Sapere and Ernesto Belisario for Foia4italy; Daniela Vellutino, lecturer in innovation of public communication at University of Salerno; and a representative from the civil society, Leonardo Ferrante of Libera — Gruppo Abele, an organisation that fights organised crime and corruption.
I hope an international collaboration can see the light, allowing us to produce new participatory investigations using innovative methods. As I learned by listening to my colleagues from around the world at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, I think it is key to “build WITH and not FOR” , as Laurenellen McCann so effectively put it.
Is mine a completely positive evaluation then? I can’t hide the hurdles of this adventure. On one hand, the impossible task of publishing all the material I produced, but that the citizens expect — and we always have to refer back to the citizens. Also, the quest to find formats that are appreciated by the readers, a task that is only possible if we create a real team of committed civic, data, visual journalists, that are also social media addicted — something I am currently working on.
On the other hand, the economic hardships. After the first grant by Fondazione Ahref, the project only survived thanks to my voluntary work and the sale of my investigations to the media that recognised the value of my work. I have to remind that in Italy, at this time, there are no foundations devoted to independent journalism in the public interest. Therefore, besides international grants, the other path to beat is getting support from the bottom.
And the successful crowdfunding campaign just undertaken by Valigia Blu, a great project of independent and innovative information, “With no publishers, with no advertising. For the readers, with the readers”, gives us a boost of hope.
To those who ask me where I get my enthusiasm and the strength to approach the titanic endeavour that is innovating journalism in the public interest in Italy, I answer quoting Josh Stearns, director of The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and colleague in the Crowd-Powered News Network: “Just as Superman gets his powers from the sun’s rays, the locus of our power as journalists is the people we serve”.
[Many thanks to Gloria Schiavi for the traslation]