On September 25th, Italy will run political elections. Whether or not you are interested in the results of this democratic process, if you are interested in journalism, there are some things that we can address to make it a robust case of study.
Let’s see why.
First, the general media coverage tone of voice – with the due exceptions – paints the election as a competition with winners and losers. It’s a trendy and international oversimplification of the democratic process. It’s a kind of coverage that focuses on characters – the politicians, the leaders, their tweets, controversy, jokes, viral factoids, and gossip – not on programs. It’s easy to understand why this happens: it’s faster and cheaper to tell election stories this way, and it’s probably driving more traffic to newspaper websites.
Second, the service part of the coverage (i.e. analysis of programs, lists of candidates, how to vote, and so on) is time-consuming and, in most cases, leads to tons of substantially undifferentiated pieces of content, more like commodities than real news or journalism at all. In some cases, you can find interactive webpages very well designed but very similar: compare, for example, these three find-your-candidates tools developed by three different Italian newspapers.
Third, everyone on the field is complaining and struggling with lacking time and rush.
Speaking with journalists involved in politician coverages, they would tell you – often asking to remain anonymous, like in this case – things like: “We are literally inside a blender, chasing what happens and then running to throw it out before our competitors. You don’t even have time to think. We are stuck in this old-fashioned coverage, we use just traditional sources.”
Fourth and last, mistakes, lack of method, and anxiety to have something viral to tell as fast as possible. In this rushy context, it also happens that an article based on a supposed screenshot of a supposed WhatsApp chat becomes part of journalistic coverage. And then, it generates controversies in political conversations, statements, and new pieces about those statements. Even if the screenshot is probably a fake (the whole story is Italian only here).
The enemy of going deeper, of digging, of providing original and unique proper content in proper context, of investigating, is a well-known one. Time.
There are several possibilities to solve this.
One of these strategic and technical solutions requires seeking inspiration from the Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) communities and the so-called civic hacking approach.
OSINT is the practice of collecting and analysing the information gathered from open sources to produce any possible actionable intelligence – even journalistic ones.
In civic hacking actions, you can find citizens putting their knowledge to solve problems, sharing tools, documents, and resources, reusing and improving what has been done, and not inventing the wheel every time.
Suppose you live in a country where transparency is mandatory by law for parties and candidates – Italy is the case – and stuff like political parties programs, candidates’ CVs, and candidates’ criminal records are – or, at least, should be – open source. Even in this case, for example, on the official website Transparent Election, most programs are images, while the law provides a format that is also accessible.
In this hybrid context, several independent activists, newsrooms, and journalists (I’m one of them, with my Slow News) are working to make those documents accessible and open, but also to share knowledge and methods that can be reused to save time.
Let’s look into some examples.
Slow News put into Pinpoint – a free and relatively new tool for journalists developed by the Google News Initiative – 1,500 documents and counting. Among them: CVs, criminal records, programs, statutes, transparency declarations, and some audio files with candidates’ comments and explanations about the programs. I categorised them.
Just to be clear: we are not talking about exclusive documents. We are talking about stuff that anyone with time and knowledge can find online.
Then I created a collaborative and shared doc with some tutorials to use the tool and started disseminating this collection using Slow News and my personal social media presence.
Pinpoint works as a powerful search engine, allowing anyone with access to browse the collection. It recognises any word, even in not precisely machine-readable documents. It enables searching by people’s names, locations, institutions, general terms, and exact matches. It also transcribes audio files, letting the user browse them as text documents.
Thanks to us sharing Sharing videos and screenshots to show how it works, the collection reached an interested audience. Nowadays, 250 (and counting) journalists and activists (and some citizens too) are using it to browse documents, dig into them, and publish articles like these ones.
Anyone can ask me to access the collection; now, the tool requires you to have a Gmail account and to receive an invitation. We hope that Pinpoint’s team will soon make it possible to have an open collection. And anyone can contribute to the collection, sharing with Slow News links to documents, ideas to improve and so on.
There are other examples of this work. OnData is an association that promotes opening public data to make it accessible to anyone. They created a GitHub space with a lot ofmany open data about the Italian eElection 2022.
OnData President Andrea Borruso explains: “The official website Transparent Election published candidate lists. But it was necessary to collect information ‘by hand’ from dozens of web pages. So, we extracted these data and made them available in only six files, in an easy-to-process format”.
On social media, people started expressing interest in these two initiatives. 24 hours later, the Ministry also published this information as open data.
“But in our files”, Borruso says, “there is at least one more piece of information: candidate genders. It was a lost opportunity not to make this information visible. Because, for example, you can find which gender is the most prevalent in the easiest-to-be-elected positions”.
“Moreover”, Borruso concludes, “we have converted the images to text and created a search engine for all programs”.
Why is this approach so important?
Because, if shared, it could save time, money, and resources. Newsrooms could freely access and reuse methods, tools, and information and take advantage of this enormous saving of time, money, and resources.
If you want to use a word to define this kind of cooperation that does not involve activism or civic hacking, you can call it coopetition.
But can we find some examples of coopetition even in the mainstream media?
It’s been hard to have statements by journalists on this topic.
A journalist working for a prominent Italian newspaper, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told me: “We don’t even have the culture for this approach. We hardly know what the concept of ‘open data’ is”.
Luca Salvioli, Lab24 Editorial Coordinator at Il Sole 24 Ore, shows some hope for the future and the present: “We used government open data to implement a search engine for candidates. We haven’t contributed to sharing open data in this case. But, for example, during the pandemic, we allow anyone to download data and formulas we used”.
“Smaller newsrooms”, Salvioli says, “do useful work on data. Legacy media can collaborate with them. For example, we worked with Pagella Politica. The analysis with Pinpoint takes time, so I used it in a preliminary phase: the collection made available to everyone was a nice service. I gave it to the political editorial staff. I personally found the work of Indecis.it more immediate: we worked with them on a project that will soon go online”.
Ready or not, the technologies we can count on are improving, and this kind of collaborative work will be faster and more immediate very soonat a breakneck pace.
Using these technologies is already a solution: a small team of professionals working together on open data can quickly set the basis to provide themselves and the audience with shared, transparent, verifiable, and reusable sources.
This work enables journalists to minimise the effort in doing the same things (i.e. once set up, an open map can be shared everywhere by everyone) and to give the newsrooms time to do good, unique, valuable journalistic work.
Alberto Puliafito is an Italian journalist, director and media analyst, Slow News’ editor-in-chief. He also works as digital transformation and monetisation consultant with Supercerchio, an independent studio.