How to Engage Citizens for Journalism

Investigative engagement reporters bring together evidence, anecdotes and input from the crowd, all in plain sight.

Investigative reporters specialize in keeping secrets. However, many of the world’s most serious problems are quite public – your communities deal with them every day. Investigative engagement reporters bring together evidence, anecdotes and input from the crowd, all in plain sight. 

Engagement reporting is a philosophy and a reporting technique, not a prescription. You can crowdsource for small stories. You can crowdsource for big stories. You can use fancy tools or you can pass out hand-written flyers at a gas station. The options are endless. 

This is how to invite your readers into the reporting process, from the conception of an idea to the publication of findings. 

Choose a Topic People Care About

Topic selection is the most important part of any crowdsourcing project. Not every issue lends itself to this style of reporting. The best ideas come directly from sources, as expressed in comments sections, tip lines, online forums or wherever else groups gather. 

Listen for clues:

  • What are people angry about? Is there a petition? Great for engagement. Is there a complicated scheme no one has heard about yet? Not so great for engagement.
  • Who are the most influential people in this community? Have you talked to them? What are they hearing complaints about?
  • What’s directly affecting people’s lives? Overly expensive bills? Unfair conditions at work? Dust in the air they breathe? 

In 2017, a colleague and I were looking at stories about age discrimination in the workplace. He wrote an essay about his own experience trying to land a job and it resonated with thousands of readers. Many suggested looking at the tech industry, and several mentioned technology giant IBM by name. We followed up and realized it was only the tip of the iceberg. These early signals led directly to our investigation.

Define the Community

Whether you’ve lived within a community your whole life or you’re venturing somewhere new, you need to do research on the front end. Look at demographic information, including any data about age, race, gender, etc. If you’re focused on a town or neighborhood, look at maps to see how it’s laid out. Ask around for softer information: Where do people go after work? Do they use TikTok? Do they absolutely hate being described with certain words? Why? What’s the most controversial issue? How have people reacted to previous reporting or media attention? 

Your project can’t involve everybody, nor should it. Your next step is to narrow down as much as you can. Write out a list of stakeholders: 

  • Who, specifically, is harmed in a direct way? (Example: Workers laid off by IBM.)
  • Who, specifically, is responsible? (Example: Certain departments at IBM.)
  • Who feels downstream effects of this harm? (Example: Families of IBM employees, employees taking on more work after their colleagues leave, lawyers representing employees…)

A classic example of stakeholder mapping comes from my colleagues Adriana Gallardo, Nina Martin and their team reporting on the troubling maternal mortality rate in the U.S. Researchers knew that 700-900 women died in childbirth in 2016, but they didn’t understand why the number was so high. Our reporters wanted to find out what happened in each case. To get a full picture, they knew they needed to talk to data scientists, midwives and other birthing professionals and, of course, the families grieving their lost mothers. 

But stakeholders in this project also included another very important group: Women who almost died in childbirth. Moms who had survived a terrifying experience were highly motivated to tell their stories and help spread the word about our project. The team’s research found women already gathered in Facebook groups, support networks and the comments’ sections of women’s magazines. Many were organized by geography, which would prove to be very useful for later reporting on specific states.

 Pitch and Map Out Your Reporting

Crowdsourcing alone does not make an investigation. It only works if you pair it with other kinds of evidence: records, data sets, expert interviews and the many other tools you use for reporting. 

Before you ask your community to participate, you need to figure out how you plan to use their responses. Use your research to formulate a working hypothesis: If all goes as you expect, what’s your dream headline? What is the strongest possible nutgraf you believe you’d be able to write? How will submissions fuel your final product? Do you really need to hear from hundreds of people, or would just a handful suffice? What concrete pieces of information must you collect? Set goals.

As editor of a crowdsourcing team, I’m always listening for what we call a reporting gap. What is it that you can only find out through people’s individual stories? An example: Facebook’s digital advertising platform uses data about you to inform what kinds of ads you’ll see. It knows a lot about you – your race, your gender, your location and much more. We wanted to better understand how Facebook used that information to target people, but there was no way to see ads beyond those served directly to us. We needed to build a bigger database, and we needed our readers’ help. Thousands of people agreed to install a tool that anonymously copied and sent us the ads they saw as they browsed Facebook. Together, that group of readers compiled a picture we could not see any other way.

A few warnings:

  • A handful of anecdotes can’t prove the whole. Beware of “all” statements. Unless you know the total population (i.e. the 700-900 mothers who died in childbirth), you have no idea how representative your sample is, or how much others’ experiences might differ. 
  • You need receipts. I’m often asked:How do you know respondents are being truthful? My answer: You don’t until you check it out. Collecting documents (bills, Facebook ads, hospital records) as you go can help you with this verification process. Receipts can also take the form of photos or videos. I’m also obsessed with using sensors or other citizen science tools for environmental projects.
  • Crowdsourcing is not the same as opinion polling. Readers love to tell you what they think about an issue. Investigations, however, are about what people have experienced. Take care not to conflate the two.

Create Your Call to Action

You can do callouts using online survey tools, text message bots, voicemails, mailers, encrypted messaging apps, flyers sensors and dozens of other tools. Try to use the medium best suited to the community.

No matter what form your callout takes, you’ll want to:

  • Introduce yourself and explain your goal. 
  • Be very clear about how you plan to use what you collect. Will you publish what they submit? Do you intend to share responses with other reporters or partners?
  • Be considerate of people’s time. Don’t ask for more than you need. Use multiple choice where you can. 
  • Collect contact information. Make sure you can get back in touch.

Check out some of ProPublica’s live questionnaires for examples of our callout structure.

Proof of Concept and User Testing

Once you have your pitch, run it by community sources to see what they think. Always test in a small group before you push it out to everyone. You’ll catch bugs and perfect your tone.

We sometimes show our user testers a callout and ask them to fill it out in front of us, without directing or explaining anything until after they have finished. This is a great way to challenge our assumptions. It’s an especially important step when you are reporting on marginalized communities that have good reason to distrust the media. (A recent example: Indigenous people pushing to get sacred remains and objects returned to their tribes.)

As an added bonus, user testers are often great ambassadors for your project once it launches. They can vouch for you to others in their community.

Spread the Word

Use what you’ve learned about your community to craft a message that will resonate. Write as though you’ve done your research, using the proportional amount of formality and precision. A group of comedians will respond to a different level of formality than, say, officials in the military. Echo the language people use to talk about themselves. 

Next comes the fun part. Get creative!

  • Events: Community-driven Zooms, meet-ups, and all kinds of other gatherings. 
  • Mailers and flyers: If community research tells us the people we want to reach have limited internet access, we turn on the printer.
  • Attach callouts to high-traffic stories. Publishingjournalism is one of the best ways we’ve found to attract respondents. Most readers who finish articles are invested in the subject, and likely exactly the kind of person we hope to hear from.
  • Service journalism: Make something useful and you will earn trust and attention. Examples include guides and look-up tools.
  • Call in radio shows. Local DJs are often amazing community switchboard operators.
  • Anything else you can think of!

Bonus: Ask people in the community to spread the message for you. Everyone trusts people they know above a random journalist. 

Follow Up On What People Tell You

Topic selection is, again, the most important part of a crowdsourced investigation. Vying for a close second: organizing responses.

To that end:

  • Require reporters to keep track of respondents they’ve reached out to and/or interviewed.This helps us avoid bombarding individual sources, and protects relationships that might develop out of a callout response. 
  • Categorize and label responses by theme, content, and status. If you’re working with a larger team, it can help to make a glossary of labels to ensure that everyone is applying them consistently. 
  • Look at metrics and performance. Click-through metrics can be especially useful for a callout. If you’re sending a mass email or posting a link somewhere interesting, add tracking codes.
  • Consider asking callout recipients for demographic information. As a pool of responses grows, use community research to see if you’re hearing from a representative enough group. Adjust your strategy accordingly.
  • Ask people how they found your callout. People are notoriously terrible at self-reporting this, so don’t take their answers too seriously. But it can be a good pulse-check on what’s working and what isn’t.

An incredible intern once made a tracking document we use for inspiration

Report Back, Preferably in More than One Way

You’ll want to keep people updated as you go. Send communities notes and follow up quetsions as reporting evolves or longer projects stretch on. 

Once stories publish, let participants know! Send a message directly to your participants (here’s an example in action on Reddit!). Or, put out additional stories that directly address the community. I love making service journalism based on the questions people have asked throughout a reporting process, such as this guide to pre-natal testing, or this advice from mothers who survived a traumatic childbirth experience.

Think about format. If your publication is entirely online but your community doesn’t have internet access, you’ll need to report back another way. To share a recent story about conditions for Spanish-speaking workers on dairy farms, we had to go beyond hiring a translator. Our reporters also recorded an audio version of the story, printed flyers, posted on TikTok and discussed the story on several local Spanish-language radio stations and wrote a letter explaining their process

Stay in Touch! Do More Stories!

The very best part of engagement journalism: Doing it all over again.

Your community will respond to your work with more story ideas. Take them seriously, and build upon the trust, goodwill and impact you’ve earned throughout this process.

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