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Citizen Investigation Guide: Overview

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Titles Don’t Matter, Investigate!

Curiosity fuels investigations, and there’s no monopoly on who can be curious. 

Citizens can investigate, and they do. GIJN provides some great examples below. 

This GIJN guide aims to help non-journalists investigate even more. The sections teach the techniques used by investigative journalists.

Our guide will help with:

We welcome suggestions for expanding this resource. Please write to us here. 

Citizen Investigations Underway Worldwide

We took a look at the impressive investigative work being done around the world by citizens. 

Citizen investigators include ordinary citizens, members of nongovernmental organizations, and non-journalism professionals interested in using investigative techniques to uncover wrongdoing and expose the invisible.

One of the most innovative and successful investigative outfits, Bellingcat, was created by Eliot Higgins, who was working various administrative jobs and taking care of his child at home when he started blogging about the civil war in Syria. Looking at video footage he found on the internet in 2012, he discovered that the Syrian regime was using cluster bombs and chemical weapons. He and Bellingcat have since conducted many important investigations.

GIJN has accumulated other recent examples, which are incorporated into the chapters of this guide. 

As difficult as it is for individual citizens to bring their research to public attention, the truth finds a way out. Sometimes the findings get published through social media or as letters to the editor. Some citizen investigators engage with others in social activism and present their work at community meetings or before government bodies, or even take their findings to law enforcement officials.

What’s in a Name?

Digital disruption has led to the empowerment of citizens both to choose what they consume and to use media to directly affect their societies. Investigations increasingly take advantage of more government information being online (though certainly not everywhere) and new techniques. Researching for citizens is made easier because of the internet. Investigations are done by analyzing public data, probing social media, and examining images from the air via drones and satellites.

People without professional qualifications working outside of organizations with an editorial structure are out there researching, investigating, writing, and shaping public opinion. 

The line between professionally trained journalists and alternative investigators, be they citizens or nongovernmental organizations, is blurred.

Our use of “citizen investigator” suggests a broader group of people, but it’s worth considering the role “citizen journalist.” 

The term “citizen journalist” has come to have multiple meanings, but usually refers to citizens who have a working relationship with established media outlets. Many media outlets have increased their appeals to citizens for tips, photos, videos, and opinions.They have made it safer to submit contributions. Crowdsourcing has enabled journalists to gather more information, faster, and from many more people. 

Smartphones have essentially created a worldwide network of potential eyewitnesses who can share photos or text first-hand accounts. This is sometimes called “citizen witnessing.” Such contributions often help illustrate daily news shows and sometimes can form the raw material for investigative journalism.

Efforts to integrate “amateur” journalism into existing media haven’t always succeeded, but the concept continues to be explored and developed.

And with access to the internet, many researchers and investigators are bypassing traditional media. According to University of Oklahoma professor Clemencia Rodriguez, in Latin America, for example, “citizen journalism is a practice of resistance that emerges as social movements, activists, and other social justice collectives refuse to embrace the notion that only professional news organizations can practice journalism and nourish the public sphere with information key to democratic processes. (Citizen Journalism: Global Perspectives – Volume 2)

At the same time, researchers and trained journalists are being hired by nongovernmental organizations to publish investigative stories (Matthew Powers 2015) that contribute to their advocacy and campaigning efforts. The NGO Global Witness, for example, employs journalists and has done investigations that have been picked up by major media outlets like the Financial Times, the Guardian, and ABC News.

Unsurprisingly, there is a debate about what journalism is and who is qualified to do it.

“It has become fashionable in recent years to wonder who is and isn’t a journalist,” wrote Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in The Elements of Journalism (2014), continuing:

We think this is the wrong question. The question people should ask is whether or not the person in question is doing journalism. Does the work proceed from an adherence to the principles of truthfulness, an allegiance to citizens, and to informing rather than manipulating  —  concepts that set journalism apart from other forms of communication? 

Drew Sullivan, a co-founder of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, recognized the blurring of roles between activists, bloggers, citizen journalists, watchdogs, and journalists. “If you can’t tell them apart, they are doing the same thing,” he said, quoted in Global Teamwork: The Rise of Collaboration in Investigative Journalism. “They are all investigators. Journalists don’t need to be activists — we just need to agree on the findings.” He believes we need to define new roles and build networks of like-minded investigators.

This GIJN guide seeks to provide useful information from the world of journalism in order to stimulate and instruct the ever-growing number of citizen investigators — the ordinary citizens, members of nongovernmental organizations, and non-journalism professionals interested in using investigative techniques to uncover wrongdoing and expose the invisible.

GIJN is grateful to Jim Mintz, the founder of the DigLab Foundation, for supporting this guide. We would also like to thank Marc Fader, DigLab’s Program Director, and Ann Kiernan, the illustrator who created all the artwork.  

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