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What Engagement Reporting Does — and Doesn’t — Mean at ProPublica

So you’ve filled out a questionnaire, signed up for an investigation or talked with one of our engagement reporters. Here’s what to expect from this kind of journalism.

Engagement reporter Adriana Gallardo conducts an interview during a protest outside an immigration detention center in Leesport, Pennsylvania, in July 2018. (Jessica Kourkounis for ProPublica)

When you’re directly affected by an issue, you often know a lot about it. You can have information, leads and stories. Sometimes, you’ve been trying to tell people and you’ve been ignored or overlooked in the process.

Engagement reporting at ProPublica is about giving you a place to share that kind of information. Our job is about connecting with, mobilizing and marshaling communities who have information that becomes more powerful when it’s all put together. We operate as kind of journalistic community organizers, both online and off.

Then, we take what those communities tell us and use traditional reporting muscles to find out more.

To fuel this kind of journalism, we might start by asking people to answer a series of questions through an online form. Sometimes, we ask people to get together in person to tell us about their homes, their finances or their experiences in a hospital delivery room. Sometimes, we ask people to email their member of Congress and tell us what they say.

At ProPublica, we aim for stories to have an impact. But we’re journalists, not activists. That means we’re independent — not aligned with any particular cause or position.

The distinction is crucial, but we know it may not to be clear to everyone. So we thought it would be helpful to lay out what we do — and don’t do — as part of our process.

If you’ve got more questions, reach out to us. We love to talk about this. Have ideas for our next big crowd-powered project? We’d love to talk about that, too.

We do:

  • Take the concerns of victims seriously. Our mission, like everyone else’s at ProPublica, is to expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust. So, going into an investigation, we’re often trying to explore an issue through the perspective of the disempowered.

We don’t:

  • Look at only one side of an issue. If you have counterexamples or evidence that challenges a common narrative, we want to see it.

We do:

  • Try to create journalism that’s useful to the communities we’re writing about. This could be a roundup of advice, a conversation starter, a guide, a Q&A with an expert or events to bring our journalism into an impacted community. Sometimes, we think about the specific search terms people use to find help on an issue and package a story accordingly so someone else can find it.
  • Create resources so people we’re writing about can have these conversations among themselves, share resources and talk about solutions. For readers looking to engage beyond our stories, we created the Lost Mothers Event Toolkit, a step-by-step guide designed to foster local conversation and connection around the U.S. maternal mortality crisis. ProPublica Illinois created a reporter-moderated Facebook group for Chicago drivers struggling with debt or bankruptcy as a result of the city’s vehicle ticketing practices.

We don’t:

  • Share petitions or advocate for legislation.

We do:

  • Investigate whether practices are legal, illegal or somewhere in between.

We don’t:

  • Offer legal advice. We are journalists, not lawyers, and we have to stay in our lane. Sometimes our work leads to legal action. When that happens, we will, of course, write about it. But we can’t and won’t recommend that you take part. Those decisions are entirely up to you.

We do:

  • Take tips and talk to sources. We will often run ideas by people in our stories. We also ask them to weigh in on open questions, confusing details or perceived contradictions. You won’t necessarily see those names in the final piece.

We don’t:

  • Share sensitive information about anyone without their consent. If you fill out a survey, that information is between you and ProPublica — no one else. And we don’t publish it without your previous agreement. That’s why if you ask us what are other people saying, we might not be able to answer.

We do:

  • Reach out to existing communities and ask them to spread the word about our projects. We reach out to all kinds of people for our reporting. We know you’re the best at getting the word out to your own communities. You’ve got the networks and the expertise.

We don’t:

  • Partner with organizations that are not primarily journalistic in nature. We can’t promise you what’s going to be in a story. That runs againstour job as editors and reporters. That said, almost all of our published work is free for anyone to reprint. Here’s how to do that.

We do:

  • Investigate out in the open. With all the anxiety out there about media trustworthiness, it has become even more important for us to be transparent about why and how we’re covering an issue. We ask a lot of questions publicly — often before we publish any stories. Sometimes, you know what we’re working on while we’re still working on it. For example, do you have information on the president’s businesses? We’ve been investigating them.

We don’t:

  • Speculate. The power of our work comes from sticking to evidence. We can’t guess. On engagement, we are often asking questions early. But what we don’t do is publish conclusions before they’re reported out.
  • Participate in protests or marches. While our work can lead to impact and changes in policy, we do not organize or participate in protests. We can speak about our journalistic process and detail how we gathered our findings, but we do not advocate on behalf of specific calls to action or on behalf of groups or organizations. It’s vital that our readers know we’ll only include details of a petition, a cause or a campaign as they’re relevant to a story.

We do:

  • Read everything you submit. Even if you haven’t heard from us yet, know that we’ve read it.

We don’t:

  • Publish unverified submissions. We vet and report out every tip that comes in through a callout before citing in our journalism. So, if we say “we received dozens of examples of…,” that means we’ve followed up to make sure they hold up to scrutiny.

Some more examples of what our work looks like in practice:

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