5 Ways ProPublica Uses Communities for Investigative Reporting [VIDEO]

May 3, 2013


In the latest NPR Digital Services webinar, we heard from Blair Hickman, the Community Editor at ProPublica.

Blair walked us through the life of ProPublica's  investigation into U.S. patient safety and the important role communities played in the process. 

Here are the five steps ProPublica takes for community-powered investigative reporting.

Create Callouts (watch)

A callout "asks questions that are trying to get really specific data points from the community you're dealing with," Blair told us in the webinar. For ProPublica, this means first asking a few questions: Who am I trying to reach? What kind of information do I want out of them? What will help my reporting?

Then, Blair and company uses Google Forms to build questionnaires that ask specific questions. Here's an example of just one callout from the patient safety investigation. Make sure to bookmark this guide by ProPublica's Amanda Zamora. It's a must-read and has everything you need to know about using Google Docs to help power reporting.  

From the patient safety callouts, ProPublica connected with 322 patients, 94 medical providers and 24 doctors who reviewed thousands of records.

Find Communities, or Create New Ones (watch)

Start off by looking for communities that already exist, Blair says. Why? "Building one, quite frankly, takes a fair amount of resources." And if one already exists, there's no point in duplicating.

The best way to find communities is by asking your network of sources and users, Blair told us. "If you're looking for particularly niche communities, chances are sources that you already developed, whether that's through social media or through traditional reporting methods, are going to know about the online niche communities and where you should go look."

In the case of patient safety, ProPublica decided to create a new community on Facebook. The Facebook group, which has more than 1,600 members, gave this niche group a space to connect with each other. This piece by Blair explains why and how ProPublica created the Facebook group, and includes lots of helpful tips you can use to create your own group.

Another option is to build a community around your news brand, Blair says. ProPublica recently put together a community on Reddit called "Investigate This News." 

Participate (watch)

Participation, Blair says, sounds simple but often gets skipped. It means being active on Twitter, sending out useful links, and actually discussing things with people. 

When you find a community, Blair says it's kind of like you're walking into a party where you only know a couple of people.

"You want to start out by surveying the scene, then you pick who you're going to talk to, then you make small talk, then you get into deeper and deeper conversations. And as that's happening, you're building trust, this person is recognizing you as an expert on a particular topic and when they have something to share, they're more likely to come to you."

Listen (watch)

Almost every story on this patient safety page came from online communities. So how do you take all of this information and all of these conversations and create content from them?

The first step is listening.

Blair: "We're listening to people's comments, both on the site and in the community, about this issue on the internet at large. And then we're looking for trends. We're saying, what are people really talking about over and over and over? What seems to be something they're confused about?"

Turn Communities Into Content (watch)

Instead of reporting on what they think people need to know, ProPublica looks for what people are saying they need to know. 

"We're looking for content we can create that adds value," says Blair. "So sometimes the community turns into content -- us listening, and identifying a need, and then meeting that need. And sometimes it's a mesh of the two."

Be nice. Don't be a jerk. Respond to people because when you respond to them and they see that you're listening it encourages them to give back to you.

This piece -- When Harm in the Hospital Follows You Home -- is a perfect example of community conversations turning into content. Blair and her team noticed that the Facebook group members repeatedly talked about the psychological effects of patient harm. So they collected several of their quotes and found themes. Then they brought in a doctor to speak to the issues people were bringing up.

Blair notes that anything that comes from the community is checked and verified before it's published on ProPublica.

More Community-Building Tips From Blair:

If you want to be proactive and get people to help in your reporting, you need to let them know what you're doing. All of these different community elements are sort of like different spokes on a wheel that feed towards the same goal. And that goal is whatever you are reporting on. So to get people into that, you have to let them know.

Be nice. Don't be a jerk. Respond to people because when you respond to them and they see that you're listening it encourages them to give back to you. Happy people will be repeat contributors. 

So much of community building and getting people to really be on your side and contribute to your reporting is doing things that are valuable to them. So you kind of have to know what you're looking for and who you're looking for in order to create content that helps their lives.

When you are asking for help or when you're asking for content, you want to make sure that you make your tasks compelling. It's not just "Comment!" It's "We need help calling our senators and here's why." You should always do a specific ask and demonstrate why that's important.

When you're asking for a task, break it down as simply as possible. 

Watch the full video webinar here: