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May 21, 2012, 3:40 p.m.
Audience & Social
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From cold calls to community building: ProPublica tries to make crowdsourcing more meaningful

ProPublica hopes its Patient Harm Facebook group will show that the value of crowdsourcing can be more than mining social media for sources.

When reporters use social media for crowdsourcing, they’re often just cold calling in the form of a passing tweet Did you lose your house to foreclosure? Were you the victim of discrimination in the workplace? Have you ever donated your eggs? Contact me for a story I’m working on!

ProPublica takes a warmer approach with its recently formed Patient Harm Community Facebook group. Here’s the question that ProPublica poses to the group: “Were you or a loved one harmed in a hospital? Have you seen this happen to someone else? This is a place to learn, share resources and connect with others.”

The reporters who created the Facebook group described their goals in a post to the website Monday afternoon:

With Facebook, we want to build a community of people — patients as well as doctors, nurses, regulators and health-care executives and others — who are interested in discussing patient harm, its causes and solutions…Please join us. Share your story, ask questions and provide your perspective with other members. Your contribution may help shape our reporting.

ProPublica’s hosts encourage civil, respectful discussion. “Behave in this community as if you were at a dinner party with 10 of your closest friends and family members,” they wrote in a post connected to the group. ProPublica also published explanations for why they started the group in the first place, as well as resources for those patients who have been harmed.

Reporters Marshall Allen and Olga Pierce are moderating the discussion, which Allen says will likely be a vehicle for his reporting on issues related to patient harm. He’s already reached out to some of the 175 people participating in the group, but he emphasizes that the group is its own stand-alone project. By creating a group that exists away from ProPublica, the news organization is facilitating a discussion that its reporters can tap into, but also one that participants can make their own.

“Social media creates a new layer of vulnerability for a reporter compared with what we do traditionally, which is less personal.”

Allen calls it a form of service journalism, “not so much by putting them in touch with us, but more by putting them in touch with one another.” That’s particularly important given the sensitivity of the subject matter, which Allen knows well. In his introduction to the group, he writes that he has interviewed more than 100 patients harmed in medical facilities — and often their family members because the patient is dead.

“When I talk to them, they all feel very alone,” Allen said. “It’s a very isolating experience. They often don’t know where to complain, or what they can do to protect other people…Another value for us is to listen.”

And he hopes other journalists will listen, too, saying they are welcomed to join the group and reach out to participants for their own stories. Maybe the greatest value would be the participation of lawmakers, or hospital CEOs, people who have the power to make changes that will improve patient care. But the key to this project is seeing the Facebook group as complete in and of itself. If it takes on a life of its own, that’s okay by ProPublica.

“It doesn’t need to be something else,” Allen said. “Our intent doesn’t have to be to mine it for sources.”

There’s also a potential benefit in using a third-party site as the platform. While the discussion may be hosted by reporters, Facebook is somewhat neutral territory, and participants are as prominent as hosts in discussion on the group’s wall.

“Social media creates a new layer of vulnerability for a reporter compared with what we do traditionally, which is less personal,” Allen said. “Even for people in the health care community, they can come here and they can see who I am, and see what kind of perspective we’re putting forward on these different types of issues.”

Mainly, Allen says he sees the group as an experiment that people will respond to because it’s framed openly and transparently. And that jibes with ProPublica’s larger social media strategy. At its core is the idea that journalists are not the only ones who can deliver important information, and traditional articles aren’t always the best distribution channel.

“A lot of times the readers are the ones who can deliver that information,” the site’s social media editor, Daniel Victor, told me. “Trust is a huge issue, especially when you think about [it] on a sourcing level. A lot of people aren’t going to trust a reporter they don’t know or a publication they don’t know. To me, I think people are much more willing to trust each other. But we can make the incentive: Meet people like you, discuss this with people like you.”

POSTED     May 21, 2012, 3:40 p.m.
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