June 6, 2011

Social media in investigative reporting: A conversation with CIR’s Meghann Farnsworth

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As InvestigateWest’s new online community manager,  I consider myself a journalist at heart. Although my prior work in social media was for a marketing organization, I bring experience and a mindset of a digital journalist to this new role for InvestigateWest. Some hold that social media is antithetical to journalism, but I disagree. My goal is to share and promote quality reporting through the powerful tools of new media, including social media. Though social media is not as iconic as whirring printing presses and ink smudges, it is connecting journalists with audiences in unprecedented ways.

I came to INVW prepared to plead the case of social media for a non-profit to those who view social media as a new-age marketing tool. Why should professional reporters be concerned with what Joe Anybody has to say about the cost of cereal from his supermarket? I also anticipated that social media activity on behalf of a non-profit reporting organization would need to be conservative and closely scrutinized so as to not embroil the organization in any controversy.

To investigate these assumptions, I called my counterpart at the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting for some answers. Meghann Farnsworth is the Online Community Manager of the CenterforInvestigativeReporting(CIR) and its subsidiary CaliforniaWatch(CW). What I learned about Farnsworth’s role at CIR and the role of social media in investigative reporting is an exciting glimpse into what new media technology offers to reporters and audiences.

Organizations like the ones that Farnsworth represents (non-profit investigative journalism) employ social media in its purest form.  I learned that it serves as another platform to interact with devoted CIR audiences, and cultivate new ones. Not just a new arena to unleash marketing campaigns at consumers, it is a communication space that allows for vibrant and valuable conversation to occur. Quality, as well as quantity (e.g. followers or retweets) are the metrics used to evaluate a campaign’s effectiveness. Farnsworth shared that social media complements CIR projects to provide the audience a more dynamic experience–it is a means to reach the audience in a new fashion. This is especially valuable to investigative news teams because it allows them to share content with new audiences in a more engaging fashion, and engagement is key in an age where two-way conversation is expected.

Farnsworth shared that one of the challenges of her role is that social media is a constant conversation. As CIR and CW do not publish their own content daily, Farnsworth turns to aggregation and sharing to keep engaged with audiences. She uses these tools to share “smart, informative journalism,” avoiding the wealth of social media content steeped in speculation, salaciousness, and bias. Without an editor, she carries voice and modus operandi of CIR and CW to the social media space in determining what content to share.

All CIR reporters have Twitter accounts, and they serve as an extension of their professional role. Farnsworth coaches staff that everything posted in the social media space is “on the record” and represents the organization. She fully realizes the value of social media tools, but is mindful of the inherent risks and acts as a guide for the CIR team.

Citing the “OnShakyGround” campaign, Farnsworth shared some of her tricks of the social media trade. Pre-formed lists of feeds and contacts, analytics, hashtags and keywords, proper phrasing of messages, and timed releases are all effective means to make sure the message gets heard. Farnsworth coordinated with staff and partnering organizations to establish communication conventions so that the campaign would be standardized and easy to index. Social media was an especially important effort because much of the content for “On Shaky Ground” was hosted on partner sites. Farnsworth culled the content and rebroadcast the most effective elements through Facebook and Twitter, linking to the relevant source. And in a true testament to her goal of forming relationships with the audience, a live Twitter chat was held to answer questions about emergency preparedness. Farnsworth then published the discussion to Storify  to continue the conversation and make sure that anyone who wishes to see it is able to.

Farnsworth’s perspectives and use of social media highlight the greatest assets of the medium. It allows CIR and CW to connect with new audiences in a fashion that is dynamic and robust. Social media engagement is more than just follower counts, it is the forming of an information ecosystem that strengthens communities.

One thought on “Social media in investigative reporting: A conversation with CIR’s Meghann Farnsworth

  1. Local “news” outlets shy away from certain stories.

    Individuals, making use of social media are free to share stories that otherwise might get little coverage.

    Many news outlets use their Facebook feed to post items of a trivial nature.

    Click on my name to learn about a US Border Patrol dictated news blackout on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula- this while moving to establish a new 50 agent station at Port Angeles.

    No such news blackout exists in nearby Whatcom County.

    Why does federal policy on US Border Patrol arrests change from county to county in Washington State?