Archivists and journalists: It’s time to get serious

First up, thanks to Eira Tansey, whose Tweet prompted me to finally get back here and have a rant.

Yes! The (increasing) symbiosis of the work of recordkeepers and journalists, in particular, has been a preoccupation of mine for some time. Both the archival/recordkeeping and journalistic professions are going through fundamental change and risk extinction in the future without significant and rapid evolution. Both are losing their grip on forms of control that once gave them a monopoly; online, anyone can disseminate a story or construct an ‘archive’. Both are operating in the midst of the political forces come into play around information access, and both are struggling to find ways to continue to fulfil their missions as a result. Questions of trust, power, authenticity and connectedness are central to  understanding and responding to these changes, for both professions. At the same time, the availability of authoritative evidence of what governments and others do –  records – is more crucial than ever, both for journalists who want to want genuinely to offer a counter to so called ‘fake news’, and to society at large.

So what could, what should, a collaboration or even a hybridization of the archivist-journalist look like? Well, we already have examples. For years organisations like WikiLeaks, MuckRock News, the National Security Archive and others have been identifying and sharing records as part of investigative reports into the powerful. The records so gathered take on a new and powerful meaning once captured into the news organisations’ recordkeeping systems, and presented online, as agents of real change.

indexSince 2013 I have been working with a new media organization, ImportantCool, which has presented stories that are based on what we call ‘artefacts’ – primary sources, including audio or video recordings, documents and data, and included the sources along with the stories. The artefacts are maintained in an underlying database with linkages to the journalist’s research process. Attention paid up front to the capture and management of these records is vital both for ease of retrieval and, eventually, for making rich connections across themes and subjects. Currently ImportantCool is expanding, with a spin off company which is engaged in developing technology for journalists that incorporates recordkeeping functionality. The idea is that this and other tools will support a more transparent, higher quality form of reporting that can be monetized. It’s early days, but it’s an exciting project.

So in my case I have seen firsthand the synergies between serious journalists with an evidence based approach, and recordkeepers. I think that the arrival of higher education offerings with this collaboration in mind, as we have seen with the proposed creation of a School of Media and Information at the University of British Columbia, is a welcome innovation. I’d like to see more of it – and more news and other reporting organisations bringing professional archivists and other recordkeepers in. Today there are so many more media organisations offering facilities like the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s SecureDrop submission platform for whistleblowers. They are accepting and publishing vast systems of records. If they haven’t already, my feeling is that these organizations are going to discover very soon that you cannot adequately manage records en masse and over time in this way without adopting archival techniques, such as:

  • capturing and managing metadata and adding layers to it as records move through technological and other change in journalists’ systems;
  • documenting record-creating entities, and their relationships, in a time-bound way; or
  • properly documenting context(s) – really coming to grips with and building technological approaches that enable online, connected realizations of Chris Hurley’s ideas on ambient functions[i], and on parallel provenance[ii]. How can we make sense of and traverse, for example, the Functions of the Australian or United States governments with the global functions described by WikiLeaks[iii]? An interesting problem when we consider that some of the same, but recontextualised, records are described by all of these entities (for example the State Dept cables).

I think it’s also important for archivists to be clear on what it is we are about, and where our skills are best employed. The muddying of these waters is something that has been  challenged on Twitter lately, as seen in Tweets like these, after the Womens March:

Again, yes! I love GLAM collaboration. I’m a fan of community archiving projects that collect social media records, or the physical traces of protest. However, as I’ve said before, this is not where we recordkeepers can make the most serious contributions. Rather than curating publicly available  information, I think those of us with the skills and inclination need to be concentrating on tools and techniques for keeping better, more authoritative and context-rich records of business, of government, and for enabling their wide sharing where we can. This means activities like those I’ve described above in relation to working with journalists. I think it also means:

  • building secure and efficient recordkeeping systems for activists to help them organise, for the dispossessed and displaced to keep their own records;
  • pushing for reform to access rules and the application of reformed rules to current records via robust metadata frameworks – too often records are left to languish in obscurity when there is actually no earthly reason they should not be published online; and
  • ensuring that appraisal activities (in the sense of analysis to direct all recordkeeping decisions, not just retention) are done in ways that welcome in the needs of records subjects, of civic hackers, or journalists and of activists.

None of this is easy. But if we remember that we are, above all, about the creation, keeping and sharing of evidence that makes stuff happen, that actually causes people to change their behaviours, and we use our unique knowledge and abilities to these ends, then we have the potential to change the world.

Postscript: Want one thing you can do right now? Why not join the MuckRock News Slack channel, which is dedicated to filing and sharing FOIA requests, with channels dedicated to FOIA advice, sharing public records’s based stories, and getting records from the new administration.

Endnotes

[i] Chris Hurley, ‘Ambient Functions: Abandoned Children to Zoos’ Available at: http://www.infotech.monash.edu.au/research/groups/rcrg/publications/ambientf.html (site accessed 27 January 2017)

[ii] Chris Hurley, ‘Parallel Provenance (If these are your records, where are your stories?)’ Available at: http://www.descriptionguy.com/images/WEBSITE/parallel-provenance.pdf (site accessed 27 January 2017)

[iii] These are: Intelligence, Global Economy, International Politics, Corporations, Government, War & Military. See https://wikileaks.org (site accessed 27 January 2017)

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About Cassie Findlay

Digital archivist and recordkeeping professional, co-founder of the Recordkeeping Roundtable. @CassPF on Twitter.
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2 Responses to Archivists and journalists: It’s time to get serious

  1. Interesting post – with the election of Trump to the US Presidency, I have coined the term ‘TrumpInformatics’ (along the lines of the various ‘-onomics’ attached to Regan, Thatcher etc.).

    The concept relates to how information is identified, collected, disseminated and managed in a highly disruptive professional and political envrionment. Instead of sourcing information in an objective and informed manner; information is sourced through an lens of ‘The Leader must not be embarrassed’ and reinforces whatever narrative is being disseminated. The consequence – confusion from underlings and an Nixionian approach to dealing with the media, community and the bureaucracy.

    The next four years will provide a monumental challenge for information professionals throughout the US and internationally to ensure relevancy and a ‘seat at the table’.

  2. Pingback: Our Work, Our Selves: Using Our Tools for Resistance – hls

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