Posted by: structureofnews | November 26, 2010

Social Media and Investigations

Here’s a very nice summary of the various ways journalists are turning to social media to aid in investigative reporting – from recruiting volunteers to getting readers to check documents to crowdsourced mapping (and, to get a plug in, the SCMP recently launched its own effort as well), to checking in on what people are talking about, to new tools and technologies.  And more.

It’s very well put together, with lots of specific examples, which I won’t attempt to summarize – it’s well worth reading.

Two quick thoughts on all of this:

1. It’s great that we have so many new ways to reach out and not only get more information than we could have gotten in the old days, but also do so while engaging with the community/audience as well.  The SCMP’s CitizenMap project, for example: we’ve always gotten tips from people and green groups about suspected environmental damage in rural Hong Kong.  But by making easier to send in reports – and giving people the (relatively) instant gratification of seeing their report pop up on a map – we get a lot more messages (about 20 within the first week), and people get much more of a stake in the stories and reporting process.  That’s all good.

2. But it’s also clear that all this engagement takes new processes – and much more time.  Just keeping up with new techniques and tools can be a full-time job, never mind getting adept at any of them, much less doing any actual reporting.  So obviously you can’t try everything.  But you also don’t want to be left behind.  I realize I’m simplifying (grossly), but journalism as a practice didn’t change hugely for a fairly long time – yes, we got telephones, computers, online archives, email, etc, over the years. And now, suddenly, there’s been an explosion in the many ways we do things, and more importantly, how we can do things.

When I started work 25+ years ago, my first story was written on a manual typewriter; when I attended graduate school at Columbia 20+ years ago, the library’s “morgue” of newspaper clippings was actual paper clippings.  Emil came a couple of years after that.  Moving from that pace to suddenly having Google Refine, crowdsourced maps, Storify, twitter communities and much more is a tad headspinning.

More importantly, adopting new tools requires new processes, and engaging communities and readers can be a very time-consuming activity.   Again, on our crowdsourced map, we’ll need to figure out how best to ensure reports are followed up and active users of the site feel like an engaged part of a community.

These are all good things, of course; but it requires real effort to make them work well. It also requires redefining what our job is – in some cases, from person-who-digs-up-information-and-publishes-it to community steward and enabler of group action.  For some journalists, it’s what we should have been doing all along; for others, it runs counter to their idea of what this profession is.  Whoever’s right, it’s certainly different.

And, since we live in a world of finite resources and time, doing one thing – individually or institutionally – means not doing other things.

Which is probably one of the biggest issue journalists and media organizations face in a world of much greater choice:  Where do we invest ourselves, our time, and our money in?  Which one offers the best payback, whether in terms of stories, revenues or public good?  And what road will that lead us down in the evolution of our business?


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