Journalists and citizens: Working together on crowdsourced investigations

“We do not create communities. We intercept the needs of communities.”

This is how journalist Rosy Battaglia defines her mission. Battaglia is the founder and editor of Cittadini Reattivi, a crowdsourced civic journalism project.

Together with Daniel Drepper, senior editor at Correct!v, and data journalist Gianluca de Martino of Dataninja, she was one of the speakers at the panel discussion “Between civic and data journalism: How to work on a crowdsourced journalistic investigation“, which took place during this year’s International Journalism Festival in Perugia.

The three panellists seemed to agree that journalism has one important function, among others: to create knowledge and, essentially, be of service to the community.

“It is important to work with the citizens,” said Battaglia, “not only for them.”


‘Journalists have a superpower – the citizens’

Without a doubt, journalism today is as open as never before. Users are not just users – they are also an active part of the news creation process. They are contributors, they are sources, and often they know more about a certain issue than the individual journalists themselves, as Drepper pointed out.

“Journalists have superpowers and communities are the source,” said Battaglia, referring to a quote by journalist Josh Stearns.

Cittadini Reattivi is an example of just how powerful communities can be. Since Battaglia launched the project in 2013, she has been able to gather user-generated story ideas, some of which eventually led to new journalistic investigations. The largest data-driven investigation that came about as a result of content generated on the platform was “The price of asbestos”. It was published in 2015 and it focused on those communities in Italy most affected by pollution resulting from asbestos.

“We wanted to blend civic with data journalism,” Battaglia explained. “We didn’t want to do traditional investigative journalism, which is often based on judicial information. We wanted to find out things before the judiciary stepped in. We wanted to find out the factors that cause environmental problems.”

In a way, what she has managed to achieve with her project, is to do watchdog journalism. And she hasn’t been the only one.

Drepper and his team at Correct!v have been working for the rights of their local communities. About half a year ago, they launched an investigation into the alleged wrongdoings of local savings banks in Germany (Sparkassen).

“Those banks should be there to help people save money, but there were lots of reports that these banks are wasting money [and] are not transparent enough, [so] we decided to investigate all of them.”

Because of the scope of the investigation Drepper and his team set out to engage as many people as possible, who would eventually contribute different pieces of information to fill in the existing blanks. Needless to say, one of the main challenges in this – as in most projects involving citizen journalism – was the ability to verify all the information collected.

De Martino, in turn, spoke primarily about the creation and mission of Confiscati Bene (literally “well confiscated”) – a participatory project that aims to promote transparency around the reuse of assets seized from the mafia. The project is largely dependent on citizen monitoring and reports, as “citizens help verify is those assets have been left in the hands of organized crime”, or indeed seized, De Martino explained.

All three projects are examples of how involving citizens and encouraging user-generated contributions can help move journalistic investigations forward, as well as respond to the needs of local communities.

At the end of the day, such initiatives are there to fulfill not one but several missions: to investigate, to inform, and most of all, to create knowledge and educate.