When news organizations turn to their audience for help exploring and investigating a particular topic, there's a whole process to making that contribution a reality.
Amanda Zamora, ProPublica's senior engagement editor, described the outlet's method for encouraging audience participation during a recent workshop at the 2015 Media Party, hosted by Hacks/Hackers Buenos Aires and ICFJ Knight Fellow Mariano Blejman.
Zamora showed participants (about 40, coming from Bolivia, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Chile, the United States and Britain) two successful ProPublica projects: a series on patient safety in the U.S. and the Agent Orange project, which focuses on the long-term effects of this chemical on Vietnam veterans.
Journalists looking to source the crowd in their own projects should address the following questions that Zamora reviewed in her workshop:
1. What's the story?
Zamora asked participants to think of “the most essential takeaways” of the story, as well as its possible impact and outcome. This should give you a first idea of who might be interested in reading and participating in the story.
2. Who's your audience?
Who can help you tell the story? Think of everyone: stakeholders, like patients, workers, parents, teachers or veterans. Insiders? Go for experts and whistleblowers. Influencers? Go for opinion leaders and decision makers.
Once you have a clear idea of who could help, you need to reach out to them. Some will be found online (forums, discussion groups, social media, current and potential readers), and others will be found offline (rolodex, social and political events, etc.).
3. What will they contribute?
You can ask contributors to tell you something, through a structured interview or a survey. For the Patient Safety series, ProPublica designed a detailed call out entitled Have you been harmed in a medical facility? With the answers and data provided by the readers, the digital outlet informs its investigations after following up with the contributors and verifiying their submissions.
You can also ask your audience to do something, like investing their time reviewing documents or data, taking pictures or participating in an experiment, as the WNYC data team did to monitor the emergence of cicadas across the east coast of the U.S.
4. How will they contribute?
The method for collecting the audience input should be carefully thought out. Whether you choose an email exchange, a survey or an online group discussion, it should fulfill the dual purpose of facilitating the exchange of information and engaging the audience in the story's production.
ProPublica often chooses the call out format, designed so that contributors will have no doubts about the information that the outlet is looking for, for what reason, and how it will be used.
5. Why would they contribute?
This is probably the most challenging point. "You can have the most important project in the world, but if users don’t have the information to get context, if they don’t understand the point, what you are working toward, what your goals are, what you are expecting to see at the end of the project, they will have no real reason for contributing,” Zamora said. “Make sure you articulate in your forms what you expect to do with the contributor’s information.”
Seeing the questions in action
In the case of the Patient Security call out, ProPublica chose a headline that identifies an action by asking a question: "Have you been harmed in a medical facility?"
"I’ve already narrowed the scope of this project to people who’ve been harmed in a medical facility,” Zamora explained. “The audience is in the headline.”
Then ProPublica offers the context: “You could fill a baseball stadium many times over with the number of people who have been harmed while undergoing medical treatment each year…”
Finally, ProPublica addressed the intention of the investigation: “We're investigating the state of patient safety in the U.S. If you or a loved one has suffered patient harm, you can help inform and guide our reporting by filling out the form below..."
Managing the contributions of the audience, especially if they are increasingly complex and numerous, will initially require a process of trial and error, and a variety of approaches depending on the information provided.
“There are fields that we may want to treat more as comments; things that I’m not expecting to automatically publish, but that have the ability to express how a person actually felt," Zamora said. "We’re interested in capturing that information and displaying it later as a way to show the community’s experiences and to drive additional participation."
In the case of the Agent Orange project, ProPublica devotes a special section to contributions that don’t expose hard data but rather highlight human experiences.
Main image: Amanda Zamora at the Media Party CC-licensed on Flickr via Ramiro Chanes. Secondary image: screenshot from ProPublica's Patient Safety project.