Mar 11, 2014

Beat the Clock: Investigative Reporting In the Digital Age

 

Charles Robinson of Yahoo! Sports and Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated swapped  war stories at SXSW this year.

Charles Robinson of Yahoo! Sports and Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated swapped war stories at SXSW this year.

 

What has changed about investigative reporting in today’s fast-moving, socially-fueled digital environment?  To hear Charles Robinson (@charlesrobinson) a senior investigative reporter for Yahoo! Sports, and Pete Thamel (@SIPeteThamel), a senior writer for Sports Illustrated tell it, the answer is, “Just about everything.”

The two hosted a discussion titled “Investigative Reporting in the Digital Age,” at South By Southwest, drawing a packed house.

The day the news cycle changed 

Thamel set the tone, telling about a stint at a Dallas-based freelancer in the early 2000’s during which he acted as a stringer for the New York Times, pursuing a story about a missing Baylor basketball player that quickly turned into a story of murder.   In the days after the story broke, there were no new developments, and he had his nose to the grindstone, pursuing people who knew the player and suspect.  Progress was slow, until he got a call one day from the Times, telling him that the Dallas Morning News was reporting a significant development.  Thamel pushed back, saying he had read that paper cover to cover, and there was no story.

It turns out, the Dallas Morning News published the breaking news development on their web site.

“What!?!  They put it out there on the web before the paper!?”  Thamel recalls saying.

“It blew my mind,” he told the audience. “That was the first time the news cycle changed.

The two agreed that digital media has increased the clock speed of the news cycle, and the competition for not just stories, but for details.

“You ‘re not alone in your reporting,” said Robinson. “ Eveyone is out there digging.”

Deep background & social media 

Robinson told an entirely different tale, about the utility of social media in investigations.  He was on the cusp of breaking what would have been a blockbuster story about a high-ranking person in NCAA basketball placing bets on their school.   But to be absolutely certain of the identity of the person captured on video placing bets, they needed to see some more casual pictures of her – everything they had were polished head shots showing the woman in professional attire.

On her son’s Facebook page, they found current photos with which they were able to confirm the identity of the person on the video — she was the official’s sister.  The women looked uncannily alike, however, the reporting team noticed subtle differences between the two sisters in the casual images on Facebook.   The person on the video was the sister. There was no story, after all.

“Literally, in one day a story was born and it died – all because of what we can do digitally,” said Robinson. “Digital journalism saves you money, and it can save your [behind.]”

Social media is a tool, not a primary source

Ultimately, the mechanics of investigative journalism haven’t changed – the reporter develops a list of people, and talks to him.  However, social media provides a treasure trove of information for reporters and very helpful both as a starter tool for an investigation, as well as for background

Data mining through social media has added a ton of value for investigative journalism, Robinson noted, significantly shortening the time needed to build a story

“You can come to understand who people are,” Robinson told us in describing how he uses social media to get a sense for the people he’s researching.  “They will tell you who they are, their likes and dislikes, where they’ve worked, what they were doing – it gives you a sense of who the being is.  It gives you a head start that you didn’t have 10 years ago.”

Learn more about how the digital evolution has impacted newsrooms and journalism on our upcoming webinar, “The Evolution of Media: Howe Newsrooms are Adapting to the Ever-Changing Digital Environment.” 

Click to register for the our free webinar on March 20 at 1:00 ET.

Click to register for the our free webinar on March 20 at 1:00 ET.

Author Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of content marketing, and is the author of  the ebook  New School Press Release TacticsFollow her on Twitter at @sarahskerik.

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