Digital Publishing: One Editor’s Hunt for Stories Leads Him to ‘Untapped Corners of the Internet’

By: Rob Tornoe

By now, chances are good every journalist in your newsroom has written at least one story that involved either embedding a tweet, including an Instagram post or quoting a source on Facebook.

Turning to social media for story ideas and reaction from the community has become second nature for most reporters, but the self-promotional nature of public social media platforms means you might only be representing the views of a potentially unrepresentative portion of your online audience.

So, how do you reach further into the community you cover and highlight stories that often originate in the shadows of the internet, either hidden on closed chat boards or within peer-to-peer apps?

Enter Mark Frankel, a social media editor for BBC News who decided to study how to reach groups and individuals that exist in otherwise untapped corners of the internet. It was a decision he made after becoming tired of hearing colleagues complain about the limited upside of noisy social media networks like Facebook and Twitter, which seem to offer little more these days than a place to promote their own stories and an avenue for individuals to engage in hateful speech and espouse conspiracy theories.

“A number of us across mainstream media have been a little bit blindsided when it comes to communities and people who choose to inhabit spaces that are not obvious to us,” Frankel said. “A lot of the more interesting and intriguing conversations are taking place in spaces that journalists spend far too little time.”

Frankel recently finished a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellowship at Harvard aimed at better understanding how journalists can identify and report on stories that originate in communities that exist in so-called “dark social” audiences, where they often communicate on direct messaging apps, message boards and other private, information-only platforms.

Faced with a nearly unlimited array of social media platforms to report on, Frankel made the conscious decision to limit his research to a handful of platforms that included the popular chat app WhatsApp, Facebook Groups and the subreddit ecosystem on Reddit.

“There’s a huge array of fascinating and intriguing conversations that are happening all the time that you just need to have the literacy to know how to find them and to search them out,” Frankel said.

He decided to focus his research on answering three key questions from the perspective of a reporter:

  • How easy and appropriate is it to join groups and communities intent on peer-to-peer online discussion?
  • What issues or barriers are there to journalists who attempt to build meaningful connections in these online spaces?
  • How much of what can be observed in these forums would a journalist wish to use or relay to colleagues for publication or broadcast?

Facebook Groups

Frankel’s main target was Facebook Groups—closed groups on the world’s largest social media platform brimming with talkative users and generally organized around specific topics, geography or interests. These groups represent a potential gold mine of story ideas for journalists because they are relatively easy to find and most are welcoming to reporters who are transparent about their interest.

“The ecosystem is huge, varied and there’s a lot of newsworthy content being discussed all the time,” Frankel said. “And the nature of Facebook means you can actually join a closed Facebook group probably just as easy as you can an open one.”

Frankel also discovered with his research that equally more rewarding for journalists could be starting their own Facebook Groups around a subject or beat they’re attempting to cover. BBC News had a good amount of success with Teen Mums, a closed group targeting a group the news organization traditionally struggled to reach.

“The group needed to be grown and nurtured over several months, and it was clearly inappropriate for some of us on the team to be group admins,” Frankel outlined in his report. “Over time, a number of women in the group have shared very personal stories that we would have been unlikely to have heard via more traditional newsgathering.”

Public Subreddits

Reddit, with its barebones content management system and its seemingly unending array of individual subreddits, presents many unique challenges that prevent journalists from penetrating much deeper than following pages that have relevance to their coverage area.

Frankel turned to CrowdTangle, a tool owned by Facebook that allows reporters to track how content spreads around the web, to discover over-performing stories in certain subreddits he targeted, such as r/Boston. Then, he would dive down into the comments on those posts in an attempt to find users who either had direct experience with that particular subject or were advertising closed groups on the same subject elsewhere.

“In other words, I would use the CrowdTangle alerts as a jumping-off point to something deeper,” Frankel said.

Over the course of the study, Frankel said there were a number of cases where he was able to uncover different angles and an entirely different set of contributors for stories that were being covered by the BBC and the Boston Globe.

Frankel said to be successful speaking to commenters on Reddit, reporters must actively participate and establish a foothold on the platform, and that includes understanding its unique grammar and lexicon. As he noted his study, one of the first things a member of Reddit will do when you message them is look at your profile before you reply.

“It’s a massive treasure trove of people talking about real issues and news organizations would be wise to be more active in the community,” Ben Brock Johnson, the host of the Endless Thread podcast for WBUR, told Frankel. “Not parachuting in to report on individual stories, but actually participating in the conversations there.”

WhatsApp

WhatsApp, a chat app owned by Facebook, has long been sought out by journalists thanks to a user base that totals more than 1.5 billion months users. But how do reporters even begin targeting a closed chat app like WhatsApp, where groups are limited to just 256 people?

Frankel said he was invited to a number of closed WhatsApp groups by users he met while spending time chatting in Facebook Groups or in discussions on Reddit. Once in, it because pretty clear that there were some really interesting items being shared that he wouldn’t have come across anywhere else.

Due to its large user base, false information and the spread of propaganda is a growing problem on WhatsApp. But navigating around that, it’s clear these groups offer journalists a unique perspective on communities notoriously difficult to reach, especially when it comes to reporting on international issues.

“There are literally thousands upon thousands of groups that you can join where you can get right down to the village level of a community and listen to the conversations happening there,” Frankel said.

For more information, read Frankel’s full report here

Rob TornoeRob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Philly.com. Reach him at robtornoe@gmail.com.

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Published: September 24, 2018

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