In Defense of The Web Inspector

Here’s a funny thing about the Web: sometimes, secrets are hiding in plain sight. Indeed, when you browse a web page, you generally receive a lot of elements from its server. Of course, you generally obtain HTML and CSS markup, as well as Javascript code, but also a variety of other files like fonts or data sheets. Then the browser combines and interprets all of that data to form the page you are browsing. What you see on the webpage is only, then, the tip of the iceberg; but there is generally much more to it, and it’s sitting idle in your computer’s memory.

Often the rest of the iceberg is essentially worthless for journalism purposes. Sometimes, however, it can be crucial to access it. For instance, you could be looking at a visualization and you be longing to get the dataset forming the base of what you are seeing. Or you would want to remove that stupid overlay sitting between you and the paywalled content. As it happens, more often than you might think, you can circumvent it. (We’ll see how to do this later.)

So, today, I wanted to talk about a tool that allows you to do that; more crucially, if you are reading this now on desktop, it is probably just a shortcut away:

  • If you are on Chrome or Safari on Mac, just trigger the shortcut Cmd+Alt+i.
  • If you are on Chrome on Windows/Linux, just press F12.
  • If you are on Edge/IE, just trigger the shortcut Ctrl+1.
  • If you are on Firefox on Windows/Linux, just trigger Ctrl+Shift+c.
  • If you are on Firefox on Mac, just trigger Cmd+Alt+c.

What you are seeing here is the Web Inspector. Some of you, probably, have heard of it, or used it; most journalists, maybe even the ones that are processing data, are not aware of its existence. A web inspector allows you to understand what is going on with the web page that you are visiting. It generally is organized around the same categories:

  • a console, which broadly is here to detect and notify errors.
  • a storage panel, which displays cookies and other data stored by the website on your computer’s hard drive.
  • a debugger, which really is useful for developers that seek to debug their Javascript scripts.
  • a timeline, which displays how the page is loading (at what speed? What are the components that take the most time/space/computing power to load?),
  • along with a network panel which shows through which networking mechanisms these elements were loaded.
  • the resource panel, which shows all the elements used to load the page,
  • and the elements (or DOM explorer) panel, which how these elements fit together through HTML.

Let’s go back to the two scenarios that I laid out earlier, and use them as examples of how to harness these a web inspector for journalistic purposes.

Let’s take, for instance, this applet. Made by a French public broadcaster, it tracks the attendance of local politicians across France. You can search by name or region but, sadly, you can’t directly download all the data. This is all the more disappointing that the website indicates that their dataset has been done by hand, so you probably can’t find it elsewhere.

Well, with a web inspector, you can. If you open it and click on the network panel (and reload the page), you can see that there is a datas.json file that is being downloaded. (See the red rectangle.) You just have to click on it, and you just have to browse the dataset.

Now let’s take a second example. You want to go on a paywalled website, say, You probably will end up with that:

Now, there is a way to actually read the article in a few clicks. First, open the inspector by right-clicking on the dark part of the page and selecting “Inspect element”.

You should probably obtain a panel with an element of the HTML already selected. You can just remove it by pressing the delete key.

The problem, now, is that scrolling has been deactivated on this website, so you can’t descend much further into the article. However, if you inspect one of the article’s paragraphs, the panel will display the part of the HTML file that corresponds to the article’s content. You can then expand every <p> (which is the HTML-speak for paragraphs), or right-click “Expand all” on the line above the first paragraph:

And here you have it:

It’s not the most practical way of reading an article, but it’s probably better than no article at all. (And to be clear, I’m all for paying for your content!)

The broader point is this: if you feel like you get stuck on a webpage, that a webpage is somehow blocking you to access a deeper level of content, the web inspector may be here to help. It is not bullet-proof, but, as we’ve seen here, it can sometimes save your research process.

In short, the web inspector is an underrated tool for journalistic research: it is already installed in every desktop browser, it is a de facto Swiss knife for web tinkering, and is not that well-known. To me, it may be one of the common tools of journalism in the future.

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