ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

Cancel

A Closer Look

How Crowdsourcing Helped Bring Red Cross Problems to Light

.

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, suggestions@propublica.org, 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 justin@propublica.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.

Read more »

In the Phone Hacking Scandal, Remember Watergate

From this side of the Atlantic, the British phone hacking scandal seems more about a failure of British law enforcement than of the press to police itself.

How WikiLeaks Could Change the Way Reporters Deal With Secrets

The WikiLeaks case changes the way journalists deal with sensitive information.

Why WikiLeaks’ ‘War Logs’ Are No Pentagon Papers

The historical importance the Pentagon Papers far outweighs the likely impact of the new Afghanistan documents.

Slate Takes a Closer Look at the Tragedy of a Bullied Teenager

A Slate report delves into the case of Phoebe Prince and the teenagers accused of driving her to suicide.

Reverse Ferret! When Stories Bite Back

While politicians jumped the gun in the Shirley Sherrod saga, reporters once again showed the value of … reporting.

The Questionable Cost of America’s Spy Games

Everyone loves a good spy story, but as recent cases show, they don't always live up to the hype.

When the Police Control the Press

Near BP’s refinery in Texas City, the police make it a policy to interfere with photographers, whether they have a right to or not.

Covering the Bank Investigations: A Cautionary Tale

Announcements of "investigations" can mean lots of things, or nothing at all.

When an Intelligence Story Isn’t

Covering the intelligence community isn’t easy. So when a story seems to be wrong – as happened with a recent Washington Post story – sometimes it depends on what your definition of “wrong” is.

A Fracking Mischaracterization

An Investor’s Business Daily editorial repeats some canards about ProPublica’s coverage of hydraulic fracturing.

In the Eye of New Orleans

ProPublica’s focus on New Orleans is intended to throw light on how crucial institutions react to catastrophes.

Familiarity Breeds Content

When News Falls in the Forest

Calling attention to important stories isn't always easy, as evidenced by the case of the Guantanamo prisoner trials.

Jumping the Gunman

The Fort Hood shootings offer a good example of the pitfalls of wolf-pack reporting on a complex story.

Get Updates

Stay on top of what we’re working on by subscribing to our email digest.

optional

Our Hottest Stories

  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •