ProPublica and Facebook As a Tool for Journalists

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

For the last few months, the investigative reporting team at ProPublica has been exploring issues of patient safety in the United States. Some outstanding health reporters working with the non-profit – including Pulitzer Prize winner Sheri Fink, Charles Ornstein, Marshall Allen and Blair Hickman, have contributed to the stories, which ranged from an insightful look at why patients don't report medical errors to some blisteringly good stories looking at how the health care system failed patients in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

But, as important as they are, those stories only hint at the major investigation now underway, with many more stories anticipated. And highlighting the work done doesn't do justice to the innovative quality of the journalism in this evolging project. I was reminded of that a recent entry from Hickman,  titled "How we use Facebook to Power Our Investigation into Patient Harm."  As Paul Raeburn, noted here at Tracker both last year and the previous year, Publica has a strong history of experimenting with  technologically creative ways to tell and report stories.

Hickman's December 19 story doesn't dwell on the past though. Instead, it walks the reader through the hows and whys of using Facebook to build reporter-source relationships, get tips and story ideas, and – perhaps even more importantly – establish a community that provides both resource and support system not only to journalists but to patients and to health care workers.

As Hickman writes:

A typical investigation might proceed like this: a journalist spends months (or more) reporting, keeps it fairly hush-hush, writes several stories, and then monitors comments and the social web as reaction unfolds.

But for our ongoing investigation into patient safety, spearheaded by reporters Marshall Allen and Olga Pierce, we’ve launched community and crowdsourcing efforts long before we’ve published a single traditional story. We’ve developed a database of sources that is helping to inform the investigation as we report it. And we are using Facebook to create a space for patients, providers and journalists to discuss patient safety issues openly.

In laying the groundwork for the reporting, the ProPublica team created a Facebook page where members can share stories and advice, posted an on-line questionnaire for patients and families, launched a series of discussions with medical providers, and established a related Community Page on the organization's homepage, which makes all of that information available in addition to other tips and resources.  As Hickman also notes, the point is to use social media as a way to source journalism as well as to promote it.

He goes on to list the important things learned during the past few with the Facebook experiment, from managing successional questionnairs to creating groups that will comfortably exchange information to fostering discussions. It's a fascinating look at smart journalism, a useful resource for the rest of us, and – or so I optimistically hope – an encouraging prospect for savvy reporting in our complicated digital world.

                                                                                                                                                                                    —  Deborah Blum

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