Investigative Journalism: A Tool to Fight Misinformation and Fake News

Kim Makhlouf, Staff Reporter

(Photo/ Gothenburg)

User-generated content, poor fact-checking, fake news, and the rise of social media have all posed a threat to traditional journalism, said Phil Rees, director of the Investigative Journalism Directorate at Al Jazeera Media Network, in a virtual event held on Nov. 10. 

The discussion titled Making the Change: Mining Misinformation was organized by the Media Majlis at Northwestern University in Qatar and moderated by Banu Akdenizli, associate professor in residence at NU-Q. Rees discussed his prominent career as an award-winning journalist and the implications of misinformation in the media. 

Rees began the discussion by emphasizing how his early work with the BBC allowed him to understand the importance of investigative journalism.

“I grew up in the BBC really believing that investigative work was the key because our job is to look at power structures, to bring the powerful to account. For me, looking at notions of the Fourth Estate, as it was once described, in a sense, is the primary role of journalism.”

Having worked in investigative journalism for most of his career, Rees recognized the prominence of identifying and verifying information as an imperative role for media specialists. The investigative unit of journalism demands just as much verification and gathering of information as 24-hour news channels require, he said. To prove this point, Rees referenced some of the corruption cases he and his team have investigated in a bid to accurately illustrate the hardships, obstacles, and demands of investigative journalism.

“An undercover operation revealed that, in fact, the second most important politician in Cyprus had certainly expressed an interest to be involved in corruption. It ended up with his resignation, an MP resigning, and there were three criminal investigations going on… we actually managed to prevent a scheme, which was highly corrupt.”

Rees also elaborated on the role of “malign actors” who use social media to spew large amounts of false information, becoming a “tool of state policy throughout the world.” 

Most of this information goes unmonitored and unregulated, making it a laborious task for people to verify, he said. 

However, Rees explained to the audience that there are many tools available for people and specialists in the field of media that can help verify information. 

“One of the growth areas in the last five or six years has been in Open-Source Intelligence,” said Rees. Open-Source Intelligence, also known as OSINT, is information made available to the masses. This information is circulated in a timely manner to an appropriate audience after being collected and analyzed, addressing a “specific intelligence requirement,” Rees explained. Open-source information is not necessarily limited to what people find on conglomerate search engines, such as Google, but also on cyberspace called the deep web. 

Other free intelligence tools that can be used to reduce misinformation include Google Earth, Google Digital Global, and even certain Russian software, he added. 

“There is a lot of information, but this takes a great deal of time [to verify]. So, in an odd way investigative journalism is able to benefit, I think, from this private content,” Rees said.

Traditional news broadcasting can be a reliable, quick source of information; however, what investigative journalism does is locating and substantiating information on a deeper, more labor-intensive aspect, Rees explained. 

“If there’s a fire, if there’s something—an explosion, they [news broadcasters] can get the recent pictures of it. But what investigative journalism can do, [for example] when something is posted on Facebook, that’s the beginning. Who printed this? Who else was in shock? Was anybody else filming? Where are they? Can we geolocate them?”

During Rees’ last investigation in Cyprus, he noticed that a plethora of information, especially moving content such as pictures and film, had been manipulated in such a way they would be “indistinguishable.” This makes it harder for investigative journalists to convince viewers that such information is false or manipulated. 

“We didn’t prove anything in our investigation. We simply proved their intent to do these things [manipulate information]. To hear people say that and to see the mouse move, it’s hard for them to argue against that,” he said.

As the technology to replicate reality keeps developing impeccably, it becomes harder to convince people of “deep fakes,” he added. These are specific kinds of synthetic media that can photoshop people into photos and videos, most notoriously used in porn videos. Deep fakes, in addition to other methods of manipulation, require a decent understanding of coding and programming. 

“If anybody out there wants to become an investigative journalist, then study some coding and get a background in technology, because I think that a lot of the future of journalism, investigative journalism really goes there,” he said.

During the discussion, Rees was asked if he investigated Qatar, to which he replied no.

“Is it significant enough?  I’m not sure… In terms of Al Jazeera, we have a huge amount of freedom, perhaps with the exclusion of [Qatar], but I don’t really feel that it’s a subject that bothers me,” he said, adding that he was not aware of many cases of corruption or money laundering, his specialization, occurring in the country.

“If I look at what Qatar’s values are, what Al Jazeera’s values are, they are values that I ascribe to and that’s why I’m here perhaps,” he said. “They [Qatar] believe in greater openness in the Middle East, they believe in a role for the Muslim Brotherhood in politics, they believe that Palestinians should have equal rights with Jews in areas where Israel in is control; I don’t have a problem with these things.” 

Facebook Comments