Social Media and Investigative Journalism

In this extract from the new book The Social Media (R)evolution: Asian Perspectives on New Media, ICIJ member Syed Nazakat outlines different ways investigative reporters are harnessing social media around the globe. 

The rise of the internet in the early 1990s has changed the process of newsgathering for general and investigative reporting in particular – in the way it reaches out to audiences and the way news and information is gathered and distributed.

Social media is largely defined as a group of internet-based applications built on the web, allowing the creation and exchange of content. The internet has not replaced getting out, gathering information and documents, and talking face-to-face to people during research, but in a time of information overload, internet has made readers and viewers a part of the news gathering process. 

The aim is to use social media as a platform to bring in information and at the same time make media more interactive, informative and entertaining.

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, and what are the new models for web-based newsrooms?

On 13 October 2011, around 500 investigative journalists from more than 50 countries met at the Global investigative Journalism conference in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. They discussed the use of cross-border investigative stories, undercover reporting, multimedia and new storytelling strategies. All agreed that social media platforms have changed the way people interact with the news, and that more than ever, people are eager and capable of responding to news. 

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.

facebookFrom my own experience about how useful social media could be in investigative reporting, I recall that in 2010 I was working on a major investigative story about the CIA’s covert operations in India. It was a complex story as there was nothing in the public domain which could provide a lead. It was hard to get the right people to speak, and particularly those who had worked or dealt with the CIA. While I was working on the story I received an email alert through a social media network about a conference on the US Strategy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, which was being held in Washington. One of the speakers at the conference was Robert Grenier. He was introduced as an intelligence expert. I “googled him” and found that Grenier was one of the most experienced spies to run the far-flung US intelligence network and he had also served as the CIA station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan. Within the agency he was known by his nickname, Bob. In an email I asked him whether he would be available for an interview with our magazine. Bob, who is retired and lives in Virginia, agreed to an email interview. It was a scoop for our magazine. Thanks to the Facebook community, it was perhaps the first time that a top CIA official had spoken to an Indian publication.

Facebook helped me again in another cross-border major story. It was early 2011. I was planning a reporting assignment on the al-Qaeda rehabilitation camp in Saudi Arabia. I wondered how it might be possible to break through the net of silence and mystery, and whether I could tell the story of young Arabs who were returning to normal life after joining a global terrorist organisation. I wanted to interview someone who had seen, met, or been close to the al-Qaeda chief, Osama bin Laden. I made a number of email requests and phone calls to my friends in Riyadh, but there was no news. My Arab fixer also failed to find any former al-Qaeda men. A journalist friend in Riyadh said that he knew one such fellow but he was unable to be traced. Later I approached the Saudi Arabia ambassador in Delhi, Faisal al-Trad, for help. He kindly helped with the logistic support in Saudi Arabia but he too could not provide a contact. Exhausted by weeks of hunting, I was feeling disappointed. Then, I finally heard about Jamal Khashoggi through a Facebook friend. Jamal is a senior Arab journalist who had fought alongside Afghans and other Arabs, including Osama bin laden, in the war against the former Soviet Union in the 1980s. I was pleased to find him on both Facebook and Twitter. Later, I met him in Riyadh and he spoke about his days with Osama. His views enriched our story and we were able to produce a major report on al-Qaeda.

twitterInvestigative 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. “No reporter should be putting out sensitive sources or stories they’re worried about losing,” he said. “Sure, you want tips and public support and interest. But 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.”

The question is then how to deal with this situation? 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. “There is no single rule that applies to all. This is something that should be decided on a case-by-case basis. If using social media might expose confidential sources or blunt a news organisation’s competitive edge, then journalists may opt to not publicise 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.”

One of the areas where social media can also be helpful is to track an individual, or a story, on the web. Following newsmakers is a key way of tracking news on social networks. Individuals provide colour and context to investigative stories. The information on their Facebook and Twitter accounts about their educational background, family, circle of friends, professional associations, their likes and dislikes, and even their travel records can add to the public knowledge of an individual’s private activities. Today people are putting so much information about their private lives on the internet, that it has encouraged intelligence agencies like the CIA to monitor social media websites to collect intelligence. It is all a far cry from the historical spy-work process, which traditionally focused on human intelligence. In terrorism-related investigative stories too, it has been often found that terrorists have a penchant for social media sites. Their postings, pictures and personal information on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms may provide an important breakthrough for a story.

More importantly, when individuals make newsworthy statements on social networks it may give a clue and direction to a story. In some newsrooms, as a part of their reporting beat, reporters are already monitoring government websites for clues about the government’s day-to-day activities or subtle changes in policies that in reality may have a larger impact on the public. Who knows when a reporter might get a scoop from the world of social media that may otherwise have been overlooked or was more difficult to effectively track in the past? In India, for example, many politicians, government officials and businessmen are on Facebook and Twitter. They often tweet about their life, work and travel and their tweets often find a place on the front page of the newspaper.

The internet also offers more access to global communities of interest, which may provide alternate sources of information. On the web, there are numbers of reliable, dedicated groups and individuals, sharing important information. 

The role of social media does not end with the completion of a story. Today, social media is also being used to promote investigative stories and journalism. 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. OCCRP’s goal is helping people of the region to better understand how organised crime and corruption affect their lives. In addition to the stories, OCCRP is building an online resource centre of documents related to organised crime, including court records, laws, reports, studies, company records and other public documents that will be an invaluable resource centre for journalists and the public alike. “At this point we’re mainly using social media to promote our investigative work, to reach a wider audience. We are also using it, although to a limited extent, for crowd-sourcing information,” said Paul. He believes that spot.us could be a relevant model once an investigative organisation manages to build a crowd-sourcing community.

The US-based investigative news web portal, ProPublica, led by Paul Steiger, the former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, is experimenting with the same formula. It wants to design and implement social efforts to deepen and advance ProPublica’s reporting. It wants to grow its Facebook presence and day-to-day oversight of @ProPublica and #Muckreads, and to integrate social media with its data features. Its website claims that “our Twitter and Facebook use will challenge your ability to spot the crucial or buried bits of news stories, and present them in a clickable and shareable manner.” it is also planning a blog which will be aimed at aggregating any noteworthy investigative reporting that it can find that day.

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 published. The Wall Street Journal, for example, 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 an innovative way for the journal to help address readers’ questions.

It is hard to overlook the fact that any modern media operation today needs to have a social media element, and journalists need to be far more interactive with the public than ever before. To maintain transparency, reporters are expected to use their full name and professional title in social biographies; include language to indicate that links do not equal endorsements and the news outlets must provide fact-check information on social networks in the same way that they verify any other information for print.

The point is that when using social networks for reporting, it is important that a journalist should be as transparent as possible about sources and methods, so that audiences can make their own assessments of the information. In short, 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.

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