Social media used for investigative reporting

The current trend toward an online-oriented world has changed the way journalists gather and present information. Two reporters for ProPublica, an online journalism blog, suggest social media can function as an important investigative tool.

At a recent social media conference hosted by the Columbia School of Journalism, Blair Hickman and Amanda Zamora presented ProPublica’s success using social media, such as facebook, to gather sources and leads for sensitive investigative pieces.

Three reporters for ProPublica used these methods to further their investigation into common health care liabilities. They began by using the questionnaire function of GoogleDocs to create a form they could then send to potential sources. To follow up, the reporters posted calls for relevant information in highly trafficked social media sites that related to their investigation. The group also created their own facebook page to field questions and comments.

ProPublica reporters found that using social media as an investigative tool made less room for anonymous sources and shady reporting while opening a larger field of potential information.

But social media reporting does not come without compromises. The reporters’ calls for information required them to present their topics under investigation to the public before the story was fuly developed, something many reporters are not comfortable doing.

The pages and posts required constant surveillance to prevent sources passing them by. Hickman noted a new form of courtesy had to follow their innovative interactions with sources. The group of reporters strove to keep their postings interactive and up-to-date by monitoring public comments and personally responding to posts.

How strongly should reporters rely on new media for sources? Is social media a credible outlet for information gathering? Should other news outlets integrate these methods into their reporting?

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2 Comments on “Social media used for investigative reporting”

  1. Matthew Simmons says:

    Social media is apart of daily life now, so with that in mind it’s easy to see how it’s relative to journalism. People are talking about what they’re doing, tweeting what they’re saying, taking pictures of what they’re eating, all of this is the activity of not only regular citizens, but officials and other important persons of interest. Social media can be a great tool for getting tips and ideas for sources for story ideas, and considering how integrated it is in everyday and other professions it only makes sense that journalism makes use of this tool as well.
    However there are still going to be exceptions, and that has more to do with using discretion on which types of information a reporter should use from a social media source. It’s the same as using any other type of outlet for information, there’s simply going to be some information that you shouldn’t use for credibility reasons, but that’s not to say that all of it is not useful.

  2. Kayla Peeples says:

    When it comes to social media, it is just as relevant in today’s society and as Matthew said “apart of daily life”. Social media can break cases much quicker than some would say the old fashion way by going to the scene, doing interview, researching documents, compared to something that is simple one click away. Also, social media is very public. There is nothing that cannot go under the radar of the public eye anymore and I think that’s where using it as an investigation tool comes into use. Knowing where someone was or with who can be useful fact and leads for investigative journalism. However, if social media is used for investigative reporting, it is the journalists’s ethics, moral and boundaries that have to be applied on what is resourceful and what is reliable. Using social media as a trustworthy tool is debatable.


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