Tuesday, 21 March 2017 14:12

How Investigative Journalism Is Prospering in the Age of Social Media

By: 

In a society that is more connected than ever, investigative journalists that were once shrouded in mystery are now taking advantage of their online community relationships to help scour documents and uncover potential wrongs. The tools and information now available to journalists are making the jobs of investigative outlets more efficient.

The socialization of the web is revolutionizing the traditional story format. Investigative reporters are now capturing content shared in the social space to enrich their stories, enabling tomorrow's reporters to create contextualized social story streams that reference not only interviewed sources, but embedded tweets, Facebook postings and more. Journalists are also leveraging the vast reach of social networks in unprecedented ways. In many respects, social media is enabling watchdog journalism to prosper. Here's how.

Distributed Reporting

On the social web, investigative journalists are tapping citizens to take part in the process by scouring documents and doing shoe-leather reporting in the community. This is advantageous because readers often know more than journalists do about a given subject, said Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University.

“That was always the case, but with the tools that we have today, that knowledge can start flowing in at relatively low cost and with relatively few headaches," Rosen said. Rosen admits that we are just starting to learn how to do this effectively, but there are certainly some great experiments being done.

Talking Points Memo Muckraker had success with this approach by having its readers help sort through thousands of documents pertaining to the investigation of the U.S. Department of Justice's controversial firing of seven United States attorneys in 2006. TPM provided clear instructions to its readers to cite specific documents that included something interesting or "damning.”

Even though they had hundreds of readers contribute in the comments, it's important to remember the often invisible factors that contribute to that success. The site's readers had a shared background knowledge because they had been following the story as Josh Marshall and his team developed it over months of reporting. They were also motivated to show that the attorney general had done something wrong, Rosen pointed out.

A similar example on a grander scale is that of The Guardian deploying its community to help dig through 458,832 members of parliament (MP's) expense documents. They've already examined roughly half of those, thanks to the 27,270 people who participated. The Guardian rewarded community participants by creating a leader board based on the quantity and quality of their contributions and also highlighting some of the great finds by its members.

 

Recruiting Shoe-Leather Volunteers

But can a call to action motivate the community to do some actual shoe-leather reporting? Wendy Norris, an investigative reporter and Knight Fellow working on web and mobile civic engagement applications at Stanford University, motivated a community to do just that with a simple tweet (shown below). Norris was investigating whether locking up condoms and keeping them stored in pharmacy shelves in Colorado was depressing purchases, especially those by younger people, who might be too embarrassed to ask a clerk for help.

 

Norris used Facebook and Twitter to recruit 17 volunteers to go to 64 stores in one week and find out whether the condoms were displayed freely on shelves across the state. When all was said and done, the distributed reporting actually disproved the rumors in the community. Social updates and e-mails from the field showed that condoms were stocked on open shelves in 63 of the stores canvassed. One of the stores did not sell condoms at all.

“The investigation was fun to report and a great public service," Norris said. "I've researched quite a few other stories using social media... But this was the most fun example of how it can work well for investigative reporting."

Norris outlines seven quick points that were key to her success:

1. Employ a sense of fun with the request. 
2. Make the task discrete and easily accomplished.
3. Explain the purpose as a larger public service. 
4. Set a reasonable time frame for task completion.
5. Allow volunteers to overlap tasks as built-in fact checking.
6. Provide immediate feedback to questions/responses and encourage retweets for additional recruitment.
7. Build public interest in, and anticipation for, the story.

Community-Sourced Mapping

 

More: 

 

There's a big difference between an audience and a community. Norris probably wouldn't have been able to convince a detached "audience" to go out and do some reporting, but because she had built a community, she was able to get them on board. It's not just about the tools journalists use, but the community they have already established and whether that community is a genuine one or just a crowd, said Rosen. Is the relationship you have with the community strong enough that community members are willing to participate with information, advice, feedback?

“It's similar to how we make a mistake if we look at the gross number of followers, because what really makes a difference is how densely inter-connected those people are,” Rosen said.

In Columbia, South Carolina, journalists of The State Media Company newsroom noticed something didn't smell right in their town. It wasn't corruption, but an actual stink that was permeating the air outside. Betsey Guzior, the features editor, decided to call on the community to help investigate the smell using an open Google Map.

 

“People were sharing tweets and Facebook posts, but this map let us own a different level of conversation,” Guzior said. The community helped narrow down the possibilities and the next day health officials pinpointed the source of the smell to land owned by a former city councilman.

TBD.com has been able to leverage its community during breaking news stories on several occasions, including using Twitter and Foursquare to get eyewitness info during the Discovery hostage situation. But the site has also taken advantage of social tools and mapping to investigate ongoing issues with the Metro. The site integrated Crowdmap, enabling the community to submit issues through a form, sending an e-mail or tweeting with the #tbdwmata hashtag. Mandy Jenkins, social media editor at TBD, said it has been an ongoing topic of the site's reporting.

 

Keeping the Powerful Accountable With Social Questions

Because the social web gives both citizenry and journalists access to officials and companies at the click of a mouse, social question and answer tools can be used to collaboratively investigate issues and keep powers accountable.

In the UK, Paul Bradshaw founded HelpMeInvestigate, a site in beta that enables users to start an investigation and invite others to collaborate on it. It often includes answers to questions that journalists wouldn't be interested in, but ones that people care about.

“It's primarily helped people investigate issues that otherwise wouldn't get investigated,” Bradshaw said. “It also connects people together around a cause that might otherwise not have connected and makes it easier for whistle blowers and inside sources to find people to pass information on to.”

And then there is the more recent example of Kommons, founded and built by Cody Brown, a recent NYU graduate, along with former classmate Kate Ray. Kommons is simple: You ask a question and get it answered. It's also built on the idea of keeping the powerful accountable by taking these questions out of private channels bringing them into a public forum, where those who answer must deal with the repercussions publicly.

 

The site is heavily integrated with Twitter, connecting questions to Twitter usernames. Other users on the site interested in the question can follow it for updates and contribute their own follow-ups, all of which are on the public record. “Kommons is designed to help more people ask questions, but we're also designed to help others easily find them later,” Brown said in answer to my question: “How do you see Kommons being used for investigative journalism?”

Kommons also leverages the community. Whether it's working for an established brand or having a credible personal brand, those things often come into play for journalists looking to get answers or their calls returned, Brown said. But most people don't work at The New York Times and they have to work a lot harder to get answers.

A Networked Newsroom

What if newsrooms were open to the public, where sources could drop in to give tips to reporters who are digging for a story? Social media opens it up virtually, and by building a networked community of sources on the social web, investigative journalists can get story leads they otherwise wouldn't have, and are able to report stories more quickly.

Robert Hernandez, an assistant professor at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, said if journalists connect with their communities through the social web and encourage and engage in a dialogue, they'll be more likely to get tips for stories that are worth investigating. But it's all about the relationship.

"Social media has amplified our reach and network to increase the size of the of the crowd," Hernandez said. "Investigative reporters need to be committed to social media to build that brand, so that one day, the investment pays off.”

But perhaps the biggest challenge for many investigative journalists is opening up to the community in the first place. "Most investigative reporters are freaked out about sharing publicly what they are working on. They are convinced that the guy from the street will steal their story." Rosen said. "But if you can't tell people what you are working on, you cannot do any distributed reporting.”

Once you open up to that community, it takes time to build that relationship. "Social media tools are useful when you need a diverse range of knowledge, but you need an existing community to really use them well, too, and that takes time and understanding,” Bradshaw added.

The Investigative Network Effect

Having an open dialogue on social sites can encourage sources to come forward and build interest in the investigation and story. If you publicize the activity of an investigation while it is ongoing, Bradshaw said, it will help bring other potential sources with new information into the conversation. But sensitivity is the key.

“Don't use social media for the sake of it,” Bradshaw said. “It should be appropriate to the people involved and the objectives you're pursuing.”

If you're dealing with sensitive material or sources you want to protect, then you might want to deal with it offline, he said. But if you're doing a public investigation, the social web's network effect can give you a boost.

Paul Lewis, an investigative journalist for The Guardian, has demonstrated the value of the network effect in several investigations. He recently had to investigate the death of a deportee on a plane from the UK to Angola. It was suspicious because the guards that escort the deportees had been criticized for brutality in the past, Lewis said. To find witnesses of what took place on the flight, Lewis tweeted from his account, asking for anyone who was on the flight that saw what happened. He started a hashtag named after the victim, #jimmymubenga, and Lewis received several responses, including one from a man who was quite distraught in his reply.

“Could we have done that story five years ago? Probably not,” Lewis said. “Journalistically, it has opened up a whole new realm.”

Author : VADIM LAVRUSIK

Source : http://mashable.com/2010/11/24/investigative-journalism-social-web/#m1SFQzRVAkq3

2 comments

Leave a comment

Get Exclusive Research Tips in Your Inbox

Receive Great tips via email, enter your email to Subscribe.
Please wait

airs logo

Association of Internet Research Specialists is the world's leading community for the Internet Research Specialist and provide a Unified Platform that delivers, Education, Training and Certification for Online Research.

Newsletter Subscription

Receive Great tips via email, enter your email to Subscribe.
Please wait

Follow Us on Social Media

Book Your Seat for Webinar GET FREE REGISTRATION FOR MEMBERS ONLY      Register Now