Asking Readers for Help: A community engagement approach to investigative reporting.

Author:DeRienzo, Matt
Position:Industry insight

There's an exchange in "Spotlight," the movie depicting the Boston Globes reporting on sex abuse in the Catholic Church, in which editors are speculating about the extent of the scandal.

If there were 90 abusive priests, the actor portraying Globe editor Ben Bradlee Jr. says, "people would know."

"Maybe they do," the actor playing reporter Michael Rezendes replies.

So journalists on the Globe Spotlight team set out to discover what the community knew, the open secret.

Some of the best investigative reporting requires casting deep listening and documentation of how individuals have been impacted, whether it's the Globe's coverage of the church, or the Reveal's work last year exposing discrimination in home lending across the country.

In the nearly two decades since Rezendes and fellow reporters used a lot of shoe leather to track down victims and abusive priests, investigative resources have shrunk with the size of newsrooms. But an array of new tools and opportunities for finding people and listening to them has emerged.

In fact, an entire profession has emerged within newsrooms--community engagement editor, or reader engagement editor--that when done right, revolves around listening.

We know engagement editors as the person who oversees a newsroom's social media presence, organizes in-person forums and events, and sometimes frames a news organization's response to criticism from readers.

Why not harness their expertise in knowing where community conversations are happening, and how to listen, for one of the most critical newsroom duties--investigative and accountability journalism?

Integrating engagement work has the potential to speed up and improve the success rate of investigative reporting efforts, and build more powerful personal narratives around the issues that are tackled.

The decline of local newsroom staffing and the rise of social media has already led to important community information sharing and discussion moving to neighborhood Facebook groups and platforms such as Nextdoor. Investigative shoe leather today includes knowledge of and diligence in navigating digital spaces.

The late Steve Buttry, newsroom trainer extraordinaire and a former Editor & Publisher editor of the year, was beating this drum nearly a decade ago.

"Some aspects of community engagement draw skepticism from traditional journalists because they represent significant new directions. Old-school journalists should embrace crowdsourcing because we have always...

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