Skip to content

Instantly share code, notes, and snippets.

What would you like to do?
Revision-Controlled Journalism - VERSION 1

Revision-Controlled Journalism

Janine Römer |

VERSION 1 – July 22nd 2016

The most familiar form of intelligence – so familiar that it is usually not recognized as intelligence – is open-source intelligence: information obtained from sources that are not attempting to conceal it. Open-source intelligence is almost the only form of intelligence practiced by scholars, reporters, and business people, but it also plays a major role in national intelligence. In the national case, typical open sources are newspapers, radio broadcasts, foreign government publications, propaganda, maps, and phone books. In industrial intelligence, advertisements and product literature are major sources.

Older open sources have now been joined by the Internet and the World Wide Web. Browsing the Web is practicing open-source intelligence. Google and more specialized search engines give their users access to information on an unprecedented scale.

Revision-controlled [1] journalism utilizes version control systems (VCS) to track changes made to an online story, including accompanying files, for the purpose of enabling transparency and accountability, particularly in a distributed collaboration network. Ideally but not exclusively, this model of journalism would combine both open-source software (OSS) and open-source intelligence (OSINT), under public domain licensing, to fully comprise open-source journalism [2].

The value of version control systems in software management can similarly improve journalism as a process, primarily in the distributed-friendly maintenance of revisions as the story and/ or investigation unfolds.

This Version 1 document is a philosophical and exploratory outline of a model for journalism as a process, not an authoritative report on how it should be implemented (esp. in terms of software, hardware). Future documentation of this model will expand on the outline and may recommend (in detail) tools for implementation. The tools most likely to be subjects of research and experimentation for this model include, but should not be limited to:

This model should encourage behaviour aligned with the core principles of journalism, particularly the discipline of verification:

Journalists rely on a professional discipline for verifying information. When the concept of objectivity originally evolved, it did not imply that journalists are free of bias. It called, rather, for a consistent method of testing information – a transparent approach to evidence–precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work. The method is objective, not the journalist. Seeking out multiple witnesses, disclosing as much as possible about sources, or asking various sides for comment, all signal such standards. This discipline of verification is what separates journalism from other modes of communication, such as propaganda, fiction or entertainment. But the need for professional method is not always fully recognized or refined. While journalism has developed various techniques for determining facts, for instance, it has done less to develop a system for testing the reliability of journalistic interpretation.

This model of journalism supports, but does not complete, the necessity of a discipline of verification. While it encourages transparency and evidence-based storytelling by the journalist, many other tools will be needed to verify the authenticity of sources in a wide variety of mediums and formats. When paired with open-source intelligence, this model allows for the reader to act as the verifier, both of the sources and the analyses.

Scientific journalism represents Assange's reconsideration of reader participation: journalists serve as intermediaries presenting analyses to the public but they must also provide the public with the means to recreate their analyses. This shift to the reader as the final arbiter of meaning sets Assange's 'scientific journalism' apart from earlier claims about the use of the scientific method to reinforce journalistic authority and establish (or re-establish) an objective standard for journalism.

It should be recognized that many journalists will not benefit, and hence not opt-in to, this model for journalism. Journalists and their organizations whose audience does not value openness or authenticity will be less inclined to favour a system which may require additional work to support those principles.

Journalists and their organizations who rely on non-transparent editorialism and an ex post facto ability to privately amend anything from unintentional mistakes to deception, will be less inclined to favour a system which includes a publicly-accessible history of tracked changes.

Journalists and their organizations who rely on their centralized platform of control, will be less inclined to favour a system in which their stories can be easily copied and mirrored while still maintaining the data integrity.

Journalists and their organizations who rely heavily on hidden sourcing and privileged access, will be less inclined to favour a system which aims to derive its origins and references from publicly-available, independently-verifiable information.

It should also be recognized that journalists and their organizations may have legitimate reasons for not open-sourcing certain types of data (ex. the identity of a victim or whistleblower), but those reasons should not be exploited as an excuse to forgo an otherwise robust discipline of verification and should not violate the core principles of journalism (see independent monitor of power).

[1] “Revision-controlled” and “version-controlled” are used interchangeably, though “version-controlled” is the more popular term among its primary users, i.e. computer programmers and software managers. For the purposes of journalism, “revision-” is more linguistically matched.

[2] “Open-source journalism” is commonly used to describe online journalism which encapsulates various practices of news-gathering and verification, such as publishing on public participatory or semi-participatory platforms (esp. citizen journalism). Julian Assange, founder and editor of Wikileaks, has also coined 'scientific journalism,' which focuses on the open-source intelligence aspect in the use of publicly-hosted primary sources. With the growing popularity of the free open-source software (FLOSS) movement, the term has slowly begun to include journalists who employ open-source software tools as part of their communications, investigatory process, or publishing format; however it is still a rare practice in the industry. The purpose of this document is to outline a model for which that usage will be more rigorously practiced.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Thanks to the computer scientists, cryptographers, journalists, programmers, and researchers whose work(s) informed this document: Whitfield Diffie and Susan Landau; Julian Assange; Juan Benet; Lisa Lynch; Susan E. McGregor, Franziska Roesner, and Kelly Caine. Personal thanks to Chris Ellis both for his educational work and advising on this document prior to publication.

This document is open to critiques and suggestions.


This comment has been minimized.

Copy link

xloem commented Jul 25, 2016

This is such a great idea. Here are some more tool references:

  • ikiwiki and gitit provide a wiki interface to git repositories
  • git-annex provides for management of huge binary files (e.g. photos, video) inside git repositories
  • Apertus Disk Drive (immature) provides for storage of complete files on blockchains and streams the latest updates in a social network

This comment has been minimized.

Copy link
Owner Author

Enegnei commented Jul 30, 2016

Thanks! I will definitely check those out. (Sorry for the late response, apparently GitHub doesn't send notifications for gist comments :-/ )


This comment has been minimized.

Copy link

ghost commented Oct 15, 2016

Very relevant. As the U.S. moves into a pre-election period polluted with ever-increasing socio-political toxicity, I can only hope a media solution will not be too little, too late.

Sign up for free to join this conversation on GitHub. Already have an account? Sign in to comment
You can’t perform that action at this time.