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How the Public Fueled Our Investigations in 2017

From maternal health to hate on Facebook to Trump, you helped us do much of our reporting last year.

A year ago, we said we would focus more on how the public can participate in our investigative reporting. We wanted to work more collaboratively and openly, and create more opportunities for participation.

So, our engagement team focused on finding the right audience — not just the biggest — to not only share our reporting but to help us do reporting. As we wrote last year, that meant hiring journalists who specialize in building and cultivating communities. We decided to call them engagement reporters, and we hired three great ones: Adriana Gallardo, Ariana Tobin and Logan Jaffe.

The result? Lots of good journalism that would otherwise not have existed. Here are a few things the public helped us report.

You helped us tell the story of why America is the most dangerous place in the developed world in which to give birth.

One of ProPublica’s most read stories last year was the tale of a neonatal nurse who died while giving birth at her own hospital. It was the first story in our series examining maternal care in the U.S.

But it wasn’t the first thing we published in this series. That wasn’t a story at all. It was a question and a request: “Do you know someone who died or nearly died in childbirth? Help us investigate maternal health.”

We started the crowdsourcing effort in February, three months before the first story in the series ran. Since then, we’ve collected nearly 5,000 stories from mothers and families affected by maternal complications or deaths.

The thousands of personal stories played a crucial role in our coverage. It helped put a name and face to many of the estimated 700 to 900 women who die each year from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth; it helped show how severe complications for mothers are skyrocketing; and it helped us create an advice guide for mothers by mothers who nearly died.

And we didn’t leave it there. Engagement reporter Adriana Gallardo paired mothers and daughters to talk to each other about how maternal complications have impacted their families (contains audio). Here’s a sublime thread Adriana wrote about that.

You helped us find Facebook turning a blind eye to hate.

We got a trove of internal documents about how Facebook’s censors differentiate between hate speech and legitimate political expression. Looking at them, we found that Facebook’s secret censorship rules sometimes protect white men from hate speech but not black children.

We wanted to know more, specifically if the site’s censorship policies were actually working. So we developed a Facebook messenger bot to make it easy for users to submit questionable posts.

Hundreds of people submitted examples. When we asked Facebook about its handling of posts readers sent us, the company acknowledged that it had made the wrong call on nearly half of them.

You showed us that Facebook was letting companies exclude older workers from job ads.

Here’s where two crowdsourcing projects converged into one. In May, we asked people to share stories of age discrimination in the workplace. A few months later, we announced a completely separate project: We asked people to help us monitor political ads on Facebook. You’ll never believe what happened next.

The ads people submitted to our Political Ad Collector showed that companies were also placing job ads that were only being shown to younger users. (You can see the ads here.) The stories people submitted to the age discrimination callout allowed us go directly to the people impacted. In fact, one of those people became the lead example of our front page story with The New York Times.

You helped us go through White House staffers’ financial disclosures and find stories.

On a Friday night in April, the Trump administration said it was making White House staffers’ financial disclosure forms available. The disclosures laid out details like ownership of stock, real estate and companies — the kind of information that’s vital to ferret out potential conflicts. But there was a catch: The White House required a separate request for each staffer’s disclosure, AND it didn’t give the names of the staffers. With the help of readers and our partners at The New York Times and Associated Press, we pierced the administration’s attempt at opacity, found the names and made the disclosures public.

We posted the financial disclosures and asked the public to help us dig through the names. Readers sent us dozens of tips. One reader led us to a story about how President Donald Trump transferred some of his holdings to his son Eric while avoiding the usual taxes.

You helped us track the more than 1,000 officials Trump quietly deployed across the government.

The Trump administration has been slow to fill many jobs that need Senate approval. Yet it has made more than 1,000 temporary hires across the government without going through that vetting process. Many work at agencies they once sought to influence.

Again, once we got the names, we posted them and asked the public to help us dig in. One of the many tips we received led us to a Trump administration hire whom five students accused of sexual assault.

You helped us uncover members of Congress misleading constituents about Obamacare.

Early last year, a reader sent us an email she received from Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., after she sent him an email supporting the Affordable Care Act. A statistic cited by a senator’s office didn’t seem right to her. She asked us to fact-check it. We did. Blunt’s note was misleading and lacked key context. But we also thought: What were other members of Congress telling their constituents?

We asked the public to send in any correspondence they may have received from a member of Congress regarding the ACA. We partnered with Vox, Kaiser Health News and STAT News. Hundreds of letters came in. What we found: “They’re full of lies and misinformation.”

You helped us show the reality of the Trump Organization’s announced hotel expansion.

Last year, the Trump Organization announced it would be expanding its hotel business. It said it had 39 deals across the country. But it wouldn’t say where they were or who they were with. So we asked for your help to find them. (The Trump Hotels CEO called the effort “inappropriate and irresponsible.”) We received dozens of tips, and found false starts, fizzled-out partnerships, and, often, no signs of deals at all.

What to expect this year.

From left: Engagement reporters Logan Jaffe, Ariana Tobin, and Adriana Gallardo, along with Deputy Editor, Engagement Terry Parris Jr., discuss how to engage people in investigative reporting at the People Powered Publishing Conference on Nov. 8, 2017, in Chicago, Illinois. (Courtesy of Mike Rispoli)

ProPublica’s mission is the same as ever — to do revelatory, powerful journalism that exposes injustices and spurs change. We on the engagement team want to use the skills we’ve developed to do more of it. We plan to do more work that is technology- and platform-based, more engagement with those who are civically involved and more crowd-driven projects that span investigations.

We told you we would share our experiences as we go — what we’ve learned from each project. We did some of that, but we want to do more. We want to not only be transparent and collaborative in our reporting, but also in how we’re doing it.

And, finally, what kind of post about participation, community and crowdsourcing would this be without asking for your help: What are your ideas? What should we be doing more of? Interested in this type of work? Get in touch. We’re always listening.

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