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Thread: Signposts - Investigative Journalism and Accountability in the Age of Big Data

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    Default Signposts - Investigative Journalism and Accountability in the Age of Big Data

    Not all milestones are easily remembered.

    On April 23rd, 2005, the first video uploaded to YouTube was posted by co-founder Jawed Karim. The video was a self-narration of his trip to the zoo. One year later, Time Magazine’s Person of the Year was you, that is, the millions of anonymous individuals that contribute user-generated content to websites such as Facebook, Wikipedia, and YouTube.

    But with this great new ability to share data-rich images, videos, and messages instantly with audiences across the globe, there must have been something lost in return for the gain.

    With the rise of social media platforms, anyone with access to a cameraphone could upload virtually anything to several platforms simultaneously. The manner in which these platforms are set up follow the structure of reward dependence via dopamine surges in our neural networks. When a viewer likes a video someone posts on YouTube, for example, they are able to subscribe to and positively rate the poster. Multiply this over months with thousands more viewers, and this process reinforces the behavior of the original poster, encouraging them to produce more content like that which was deemed favorable.

    In the process of gaining more “likes” per post, a user can effectively lose him or herself in memetic forces well outside their control. It takes very little research to understand what generates the most “likes.” With a simple check of the trending posts on Instagram today, anyone can find images of explosions, politically-divisive memes, luxury cars, beachwear models, and photos of elaborate dinner. Our brains are tuned to reach for the fruits even when we’re full. We are only several thousand years distant from our hunter gatherer ancestors who lived this lifestyle nomadically for 200,000 to 400,000 years.

    With this new inundation of targeted stimuli, our search for meaning and understanding of the greater world is hindered by our innate response to grasp what we’ve been programmed to grasp for hundreds of thousands of years. This gives rise to the cult of mediocrity, that is, a major talent gap between each of the performers on the stage.

    Consider someone young and impressionable overhearing a classmate talking about the world being flat. Suppose that after the school day, he decides to hop on the computer and enter “flat earth” into the YouTube search bar. Several of the videos on the first page, if sorted by view count, advocate the earth is flat instead of spherical. This is clearly an outrageous belief, however, consider how many less-outrageous, but still clearly unrealistic, beliefs are weighed in a disproportionally heavy favor on account of their packaging. The content creators know how to market these videos by playing into our psychobiology, and develop large audiences as a result - audiences that, because of their own psychology being manipulated, cannot be swayed aside by rationality.

    Surely, the belief in a flat earth, age regression technology, or other tabloid-style content is more-or-less harmless, but the weight of this modern responsibility falls first on the shoulders of the amateur investigative journalist creating content on varying online platforms. Investigative journalism isn’t live reporting, providing commentary, or casually interviewing a celebrity about their latest wardrobe malfunction. It is the fine art of journalism married to the formidable science of investigation. Investigative journalism reveals the worms, or gold, under the once immovable stone - and once the stone is moved - it cannot hide us from the same surprise twice.

    Although many unpleasant observations can be made about the political leanings of the three-letter news companies and their commentators, stand alone segments and pieces by investigative journalists tend to be less political and conform to a more noticeable degree of professionalism, similar to that found in other established trades.

    Without any fanfare or rites of passage, we’ve come to an era where anyone with an iPhone and an opinion can fashion themselves as an investigative journalist and create content that is accessible by anyone with an Internet connection. Since it’s happened abruptly, this transition of times requires a collective reflection take place to assess if we are doing what the “job title” implies, or if we are inadvertently playing into the unconscious memetic forces that envelop the platforms we utilize.

    After taming the outskirts of a wild new land, we lay signposts to guide weary travelers yet to arrive where the dangers are, and maybe more importantly, where the saloon is. As mass media continues to decentralize, these new wild lands are becoming more and more settled, and a few signposts need to be placed.

    As honest as a shot of Thistle Dew, there are four posts that we need to consider before fashioning ourselves investigators.
    • Investigative journalism is not synonymous with one’s ability to “dig up dirt” on another party.
    • The journalist should be prepared to abandon their thesis as strong-heartedly as they can defend it in light of new or misinterpreted information.
    • As both the messenger and the maker, an investigative journalist must be cognizant and responsible of the way the finished product is prepared, packaged, and presented.
    • An investigative journalist should respect the sources and their wishes as much, if not more, than the finished product.

    In an age where accountability either doesn’t strike at all, or does so with no warning whatsoever, it is imperative that anyone who identifies as an investigative journalist study the art and science of their labor.

    With a video of the San Diego Zoo, a new era quietly fell over the modern world like a morning snow. Fast forward nearly 15 years, we find ourselves the elephant in the room - in a zoo of cameraphones and surveillance, with the audience made up of ourselves on the other side of a black screen. As we turn the cameras to each other and begin narrating what we see, it’s imperative, that before we post, we consider the story we plan to tell - it may end up becoming our own.

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