This is an excerpt of my most recent feature on Mashable.com. Read it in full here.
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.