Investigative reporting used to be a secretive business—think Woodward and Bernstein meeting anonymous sources in parking garages. But according to ProPublica’s social media producer Blair Hickman and senior engagement editor Amanda Zamora, the days of anonymous sources and top secret reporting are not gone, exactly, but can be supplemented by a new type of investigative journalism, one that is done on the open Web.

Speaking at Columbia Journalism School’s Social Media Weekend on Saturday morning, Zamora said she understood that some investigative reporters might shy from revealing their ideas in the early days of a story. “The idea of putting yourself out there before you’re ready to publish anything is a different way of thinking about things,” she said. “But it’s key for us at ProPublica to find a way to use social media to engage people and produce content before an official investigation has even been reported.”

By way of example, Hickman took the audience through *an ongoing ProPublica investigation into medical error. ProPublica reporters used the questionnaire function on GoogleDocs to create a form to send to potential sources using a simple link, Hickman explained. They then post a “callout” for people affected by the issue at the bottom of stories, on Internet forums, and in relevant Facebook groups. After vetting people that respond, the reporters send them the questionnaire. For her medical error investigation, Hickman started a new Facebook group, “ProPublica Patient Harm Group,” which allowed her and two other reporters to guide a discussion on the subject and engage with sources, be they victims, families, healthcare professionals, or other reporters. “Make the Facebook group active,” Hickman advised. “Be present, welcome people personally, and like posts.”

“But don’t be a mooch,” she cautioned. “Approach it like you’re going to a party. Make small talk.”

While that may sound easy, Hickman said their Facebook group needed constant monitoring. She worked with two other reporters to set community guidelines that encouraged members not to “out” healthcare professionals and to be respectful of one another. “We make no qualms about deleting something if the tone is not in line with our group,” she said.

As completed questionnaires started to come in, Hickman and her team set up a spreadsheet of responses to keep track of where to follow up. “Our goal is for these responses to turn into sources that we can report out,” she said.

Zamora said the practice was a promising new way to crowdsource information across networks. “This will never replace reporting tools, but it will augment them,” she said.

*Correction: ProPublica’s ongoing investigation into medical error is reported by Hickman, Marshall Allen, and Olga Pierce.

 

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Hazel Sheffield is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @hazelsheffield.