Credibility Rules When Investigating via Social Media

In this extract from the new book The Social Media (R)evolution: Asian Perspectives on New Media, ICIJ's Syed Nazakat outlines best practices for investigative reporters using social media.

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The growth of the internet and a changing media landscape raises immediate questions for media and journalists: How should we use and integrate new social media technology, like Facebook and Twitter, into investigative reporting?

In October 2011, around 500 investigative journalists from more than 50 countries met at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. While some shared how useful the social media could be in investigative reporting, others were forthcoming about the limitations of social media. However, all agreed that social media tools are an aid to old-fashioned shoe-leather investigative reporting and if reporters are not currently benefitting from the different tools of social media, they are missing out on something very important. Almost all of the participants at the Kiev conference had Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Investigative journalists such as The Guardian’s Paul Lewis have demonstrated the value of the network effect in several investigative stories. In one of his recent assignments he investigated the mysterious death of Angolan refugee, Jimmy Mubenga, on British airways Flight 77. To find witnesses of what took place on the flight, Lewis tweeted from his account, asking for anyone who was on the flight and saw what happened. He soon received several responses, including one from a man who tweeted that: “I was also there on Ba77 and the man was begging for help and I now feel so guilty that I did nothing.” Then, in a breakthrough, he received a phone call from a man in Angola, who was an eye-witness to the killing. In another story, Paul investigated the death of Ian Tomlinson at the g20 protests in London, through Twitter. Paul obtained twenty reliable witnesses who could be placed on a map at the time of the incident – and only one of them had come from the traditional journalistic tool of a contact number in his notebook.

Yet, one of the biggest challenges for many investigative journalists is opening up to the community in the first place. Many investigative journalists do not use social media because they are convinced that if they use social media sites like Facebook or Twitter, other reporters will steal their story or source.

David E. Kaplan, editor-at-large at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), echoes the anxiety about the use of social media.  "It’s a competitive, risky, and sometimes dangerous business, and there are plenty of reasons for investigative journalists to take great care with what they’re making public in the course of an investigation.”

Sheila Coronel, director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, at Columbia University, believes social media is a tool in the journalist’s toolkit and that reporters should decide what tools would fit their stories best. “If using social media might expose confidential sources or blunt a news organisation’s competitive edge, then journalists may opt to not publicize an ongoing investigation. On the other hand, making public an ongoing project can have advantages, such as, for example, encouraging readers, experts or whistleblowers to contribute information, sources, leads, and tips.”

The role of social media does not end with the completion of a story. Paul Cristian Radu, executive director of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), says they are using social media sites to promote their investigative work, and to reach a wider audience. “We are also using it, although to a limited extent, for crowd-sourcing information,” said Paul. 

An investigative story, even when it is published, often requires some transparent finessing to establish a sense of trust and credibility in the reporting process that took place – especially with controversial or sensitive topics. Social media tools come in handy here as these are useful for opening a dialogue about the story after it is publishedThe Wall Street Journal, in its recent series on digital privacy, created a Twitter account that provided information on the topic and answered questions from readers. Because the series of stories created a lot of discussion and curiosity, this was a way for the journal to help address readers’ questions.

I suggest that journalists should always remember the three Cs - content, clarity and credibility. No matter what kind of latest and sophisticated technology you use, it is the content which will remain the king. For content to have a value it should be clear, to attract and sustain the interest of readers. And at the end of day it is the credibility which separates journalism from propaganda and fiction. Remember without credibility, journalism is a lie.

Read more from Syed Nazakat about Social Media and Investigative Reporting at ICIJ's Resources hub: icij.org/resources, and share your own advice in the comments below.

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