Interesting report on new opportunities for journalists and newsrooms. Plus, some new BETA tools and services that sound pretty cool. If you need to think like a reporter, you need to read this!
How Investigative Journalism Is Prospering in the Age of Social Media
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Monitoring the Conversation and Sources
Though many people often joke about stalking their friends on Facebook to learn about new developments in their lives, journalists can take advantage of social search and monitoring tools to find relevant information and, in some cases, even keep up with officials’ activity. Meghann Farnsworth, the distribution and online community manager for the Center for Investigative Reporting and California Watch said its reporters use Twitter to monitor government agencies, noting themes they may be emphasizing or subtle changes in policies that in reality may have a larger impact on the public.
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.”
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?
“If I see a tweet come in, either directly to us or on a random keyword search, I can dig in and try lots of combinations to find more witnesses and more info,” Jenkins said. She also uses Facebook status searches at Openbook or Open Facebook to monitor news or dig for information. “If reporters aren’t currently tapping into these two search types, they’re missing out,” she said.
There are many enterprise tools for monitoring conversations taking place on social media, such as Radian6 or Spredfast. But the web also offers many free and simple tools for easy social searching. Jenkins said many of TBD’s staff members monitor the social web every day to follow up on questions or happenings around town.
At The Washington Post, reporters are constantly on the look out for sources on social media or examples to use in their stories, said Mark Luckie, the national innovations editor. He said social tools make it much easier to connect to the community or get readers’ input for a story.
“The collective wisdom on social media is far beyond the knowledge of the individual reporter or even the collective newsroom,” Luckie said.
Established social networks are great for finding sources and connecting dots more easily, “but journalists shouldn’t wed themselves to a particular tool simply because it’s popular at a given time,” Farnsworth said. Perhaps the greater understanding comes from recognizing and reacting to the fact that the entire web is becoming social.
Keeping an Eye on New Tools
Tools with potential are cropping up all the time. For instance, Farnsworth said she’s keeping a watch on the Appleseed Project, Diaspora and Storify to see what storytelling opportunities might arise there.
Storify is a curation tool in beta and invite-only that has generated buzz among journalists in the industry for enabling content producers to easily curate social content with context into an embeddable stream. So, what better way to tell Storify’s story than by using the tool itself?