How We Used Facebook to Power Our Investigation Into Patient Harm

ProPublica Staff

United States (ProPublica) – by Blair Hickman

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.

So far, these efforts include:

A Facebook group with over 1,350 members, who share stories, swap practical advice and engage in constructive dialogue.

A questionnaire for patients and their families, which has generated nearly 260 tips since May

A series of discussions with medical providers and a questionnaire that has generated 50 tips since September

A community page on featuring all of the above, plus Q&As with other health care reporters, resources for patients and related coverage.

Why go through all this effort? Because we are interested in using social media to source our journalism instead of just promote it. As we look back at 2012, here are a few key things we’ve learned about using social and community tools for investigative journalism.

Building a Database of Sources

Every social component of the patient harm investigation is ultimately meant to drive people to two key documents: a questionnaire for patients or family members who may have experienced medical harm, and a separate questionnaire for medical providers.

Our questionnaires are one of our most valuable sourcing tools, because they turn a jumble of stories and comments, from a range of social networks, into structured data that our team can sort and annotate. We almost always use Google Forms, which feed answers into a shareable, searchable spreadsheet. The responses are private. But as patients and providers respond, our reporters can begin to spot patterns, story leads and sources

The key to getting people to fill out the questionnaires boils down to networking and repeated promotion. Whenever someone shares a story in our Facebook group, we ask them to fill out a questionnaire. We link to them in the majority of the health care stories (and news apps) we publish.

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