There was a time when the only tools a journalist needed were a notepad, a pencil, and a trilby to hold their press credentials. That time, of course, was the 1940s and probably only in Hollywood films. In today’s digital age, with the world used to a 24-hour rolling news cycle, it takes more than a nose for a good story to make it as a journalist.
With that in mind, here are five journalism tools that no self-respecting newshound should be without.
So, a source has just emailed you a fantastic photo image, something that would guarantee a headline article. Perhaps it’s photographic evidence of a politician or celebrity engaged in dodgy dealings or a remarkable picture of a natural disaster in some far-flung corner of the world. It looks great, it has human-interest, but is it legit? Sadly there have been many hoaxes and misrepresentations, through no fault of the journalists. Image manipulation has become easier to do over the years, or people source photographs from different events (or even films and television shows) and pass them off as the real deal. This is where the TinEye website can help you. It will let you know whether the image you’re looking to run already exists and, if so, where it comes from. Its team of volunteer image experts can also let you know whether a picture has been digitally tampered with. A great tool in this time of alternate truths.
When looking to compile statistics to back up your news story, your first stop should be the DataPortals website. It is a mass repository of open data from around the world. That means that it collates data that has been released to the public from public bodies worldwide. Currently holding over 500 databases that any user can browse, the sheer amount of information can be daunting. However, you are able to restrict your search to certain geographical areas and subject of interest. With a little practice, getting the right data to back up your research becomes a simple task.
It is the duty of a responsible journalist to protect their sources. Most of our communications are conducted online and both governmental and private surveillance of emails have been a major news story for years now. In an environment like that, it only makes sense that you keep your own electronic communications encrypted so that they can’t be read, even if intercepted. Mailvelope is one of the best utilities for doing so. It uses PGP encryption (Pretty Good Privacy), which is widely regarded as the best commercial encryption algorithm. Official confirmation from both US and British government bodies have confirmed that neither are able to decrypt files and communications encrypted with this protocol.
Historically, PGP has been difficult to configure, with a poor user interface. This is what makes third-party applications like Mailvelope so attractive, as they take the power of PGP and make it understandable for the average user.
In addition to outgoing communications, Mailvelope can also encrypt files stored on your laptop or other digital device, adding that extra layer of protection to your information. If your job as a professional journalist regularly brings you into contact with sensitive data, Mailvelope is a utility you can’t afford to be without.
If you work at a local level and are looking for news items to fill your pages or to create website copy, then Echosec can prove very useful. This free online app allows you to draw an area on a map (whatever area your local newspaper covers, for instance) and it will then provide you with a list of Tweets that have been made from that area. As well as the area, you can adjust the timescale, limiting results to things that have happened in the last 4 hours, for instance. This allows you to see what the people on the street are talking about. Do you suddenly see 50 tweets about a fire at a local warehouse? That could be a story right there. It’s an excellent tool for bringing potential news to the fore without even leaving your desk. The Twitter results form part of the free service, but if you invest in the premium version, you get results from other social media sites like Instagram and YouTube.
Of course, not all investigation is conducted online. Even in the 21st century a lot of research for an investigative journalist involves poring over paper documents. When trying to pull a story out of piles of printed media, you can’t do better than using a Scanmarker.
Scanmarker is an optical character recognition (or OCR) reader, specially designed to be portable. Used extensively by students and academic researchers alike (as well as people from many other backgrounds) it is a fantastic tool for the dedicated journalist. Shaped like an oversized pen, it works as a portable scanner, but its so much more than that. By running the point of the Scanmarker across a line of print, the device converts it into digital text in real time. Once that’s done, your options on what to do with it are almost unlimited.
After transferring the digital text to your laptop or digital device you can import it directly into your word processing software (or any other software that allows text input). This makes light work of cribbing the salient points from a long-winded original document, or from ensuring an accurate quote from your source material.
Scanmarker can also convert that digital text into audio that will read back to you, so you can be satisfied with the flow and pacing of your article. Perhaps more importantly, the Scanmarker is not restricted to English. It can scan, convert, and translate dozens of languages. If you’re investigating an international story, this means you can get the local view from their newspapers and magazines, even if your own grasp of the language is a little ropey.
Able to fit in a coat pocket, it’s one of the most discreet and multi-functional journalism tools on the market.