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PacificEdge | January 22, 2019

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Ghost Boat revives past journalism models

Ghost Boat revives past journalism models
Russ Grayson

A DIFFERENT APPROACH TO JOURNALISM is being developed by the crew behind Ghost Boat, an international project to track the journey and loss of 243 refugees who disappeared along with their boat while attempting the crossing from Libya to Italy a couple years ago.

Ghost Boat is a participatory exercise in investigative journalism. It has involved people journeying to North Africa to talk with the families of the refugees then tracing their route to the Libyan coast, after which they disappeared. Through journalists in Libya talking with Libyan officials and people smugglers, and others following up in Europe, a detailed picture of how refugees make the journey to Europe has emerged.

Ghost Boat reports the investigation’s progress on Medium, the online journal. Having investigated the smuggling routes and the process, the focus these past couple months has been on narrowing the search by analysing  satellite images of the Libyan coast made at the time of the refugee craft’s disappearance.

According to Ghost Boat’s latest bulletin:

“This weekend, volunteers—people like you—completed the satellite search. More than 75,000 people took part: an astonishing achievement”.

“Readers who have been helping all the way along joined in, as well as thousands of new participants, to enter more than 200,000 data points, covering an area of more than 8,500 square kilometers. This makes it one of the largest campaigns that has ever been conducted by our partners at DigitalGlobe, and puts us in the best possible position we could hope for to find visual evidence of the boat.

“Thanks to your efforts, DigitalGlobe’s system has identified around 2,000 potential boat sightings close to the time Ghost Boat may have disappeared. Now, we can sift through those data clusters, examine the photographs, and cross-reference them with other information we have to see if we can determine which of these sightings—if any—are worthy of further investigation.”

DigiGlobe has partnered with the Ghost Boat project. It is a satellite imaging company supplying high resolution Earth-images to app developers and others needing high-quality imagery.


“By itself, this data won’t answer the Ghost Boat mystery. But it brings us one step closer to knowing whether we can solve it. The massive number of people who contributed to the campaign also lets the families know that the world has not forgotten about their suffering”, the early June communication from Ghost Boat reports.

Public journalism — reportage’s then-new form

The project has a precedent in the ‘public journalism’ of the pre-internet era of the 1990s. That used public meetings and similar events to broaden reportage and move beyond established journalism practices at the time.

Then, the established practice of reporting argument and counterargument as the totality of a story had become a little stale. Although more trouble and expensive to organise, public journalism made possible broader reporting that included a greater number of sources.

Links to the New Journalism

Ghost Boat reaches even further back into journalism history. It’s earliest precedent is the investigative journalism of the 1980s.

A type of narrative journalism similar in structure to fiction writing with character development, plots, detailed description of environments and dialog, investigative journalists produced information-dense feature stories around topical issues. Tom Wolfe might be a name familiar to some; Hunter Thompson to others; John McPhee with his detailed reporting might be familiar to others, particularly to travellers in wild places with his Coming Into The Country about the Alaskan wilderness; and Joan Didion with her writing on society and other topics.


Tom Wolfe:\_Wolfe
Hunter Thompson:\_S.\_Thompson
John McPhee:\_McPhee
Joan Didion:\_Didion


Investigative journalism of the time formed part of the ‘New Journalism’ movement that moved reportage away from tired old formulas into new territory. Now known as ‘literary journalism’ on account of its story structure, I recall being influenced by it when I did my media and communications degree back in the time. A team of us eager journalism students produced our own investigative piece on the then-new ethical investment industry. We were somewhat disappointed when a magazine published what was a multi-page feature replete with interviews and description as a one-page article.

Collaboration the achievement

The value of Ghost Boat as a collaborative journalism project is how it has taken a current issue and brought many people with specialist skills together to reveal the hidden practices of people smuggling.

Ghost Boat is a fresh approach to participatory journalistic investigation that could only have been possible thanks to the internet. The level of collaboration would not have been possible at the time when literary or investigative journalism was born. Digital culture has brought to Ghost Boat communication and networking tools and others like satellite imaging and access to records not available to those early investigative journalists.

The journeys continue

With the reported loss of around 1000 people attempting the crossing to Europe just this week, the warning of the Ghost Boat media crew is pertinent…

“It’s summer in the Mediterranean right now.

“The sun shines constantly, the waters are warmer and calmer, and millions of holidaymakers flock to the beautiful coasts of countries like Italy, Greece and Spain.

“Across the water, however, things are a lot more grim. All the things that make this time of year appealing for tourists also make it high season for human trafficking.

“It’s the time of year when people smugglers go into overdrive.”

Ghost Boat on Medium:

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