November 18th, 2014
by Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica
Over the past decade, journalistic innovators and reformers have eagerly awaited a future in which the wisdom of the crowd would identify potential subjects for investigative reporting. That hope was bolstered by some undeniable achievements. Thousands of volunteer software developers created programs like Linux and Firefox, used by millions of people. Volunteer authors created a dynamic, online encyclopedia – Wikipedia – that dwarfs any previous compendium of human knowledge. The "crowd" curates Kickstarter, a new means of steering small-dollar philanthropy to artistic and commercial projects. A plethora of websites bring us movie, product and restaurant reviews written by an army of amateur critics.
But the "hive" has been far less effective at identifying subjects for investigative reporting and the reasons why say a lot about the core challenges of deep-dive journalism.
The most important decision an investigative reporter makes, and the one that has the most effect on the outcome, is where to look. Sometimes the answer is as obvious as the headlines on Google News. An unarmed African-American teenager is shot in Ferguson, Mo. An oil platform explodes in the Gulf of Mexico. The economy melts down, throwing tens of millions of people out of work. Those stories cry out for more digging.
The stories we aim to cover at ProPublica – betrayals of public trust or abuses of power – have more typically arisen from obscure corners of government or business, unearthed by reporters with finely honed instincts for detecting potential wrongdoing.
Certainly we remain open to the idea that readers can send us in productive directions. From the very beginning, ProPublica has had an email address, email@example.com, to which anyone can send ideas. Each one is reviewed by one or more of our editors. A handful of these have turned into ProPublica stories.
The crowd has proved immensely helpful in answering specific, direct questions. Our "Free the Files" project of 2012 harnessed the enthusiasm of volunteers to enter vast amounts of data about televised political ads. And our 2009 efforts to track the Obama administration's stimulus spending were greatly enhanced by the work of readers who uploaded contracts from their localities. Repeatedly, ProPublica's reporting on national stories like the delays in processing mortgage modifications or the epidemic of patient harm have been deepened by contributions from readers on the frontlines.
Our recent reporting on the Red Cross suggests the power of addressing a specific question to the crowd.
In April of this year, ProPublica published a brief story with this headline:
"Long After Sandy, Red Cross Post-Storm Spending Still a Black Box: Donors gave $312 million after the storm, but it's not clear how exactly the money was spent."
The story was unusual for us: It focused on what we could not figure out, which was how the charity had spent the more than $300 million it had raised for the victims of Sandy. We added this simple sentence at the very end. "If you have experience with or information about the American Red Cross, including its operations after Sandy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
No super secret digital dropbox (though we have one of those, too.) No encryption. Just an email address that made it easy for people to get in touch with Justin Elliott, the reporter on the story along with Jesse Eisinger.
Over the next several months, tips began to flow in from present and former employees of the Red Cross, as well as others with firsthand information. This month, Elliott and Eisinger teamed up with NPR to produce a detailed story that included, among many details, a devastating internal report in which the Red Cross acknowledged botching the post-Sandy relief effort and diverting assets "for public relations purposes."
Of course, this sort of reporting was invented long before the Internet. William Safire, the late New York Times columnist, used to throw sly references into his stories to entice cooperation from the handful of government officials who had his phone number. He called it "putting a note on the bulletin board.''
Today, that board is much larger and more easily shared with vast numbers of people. All you've got to do is ask the right question in the right way.
So, in closing, it's worth saying it one more time:
If you have information about the Red Cross you would like to share, you can help us report this story.
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