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June 17, 2015, 8:30 a.m.

Crowdsourcing The Counted: How The Guardian aims to put the audience at the heart of its journalism

How do you build an audience for a project tracking Americans killed by police? For The Guardian U.S.’ audience team, it’s a mix of community building, technology, and focused attention.

On June 1, The Guardian launched The Counted, a large-scale interactive project which counts every person killed by law enforcement officers in the United States. Because there isn’t an official tally of police-involved killings, The Guardian used data from multiple sources, including crowdsourced tips and local media reports. The reporting team have been working to pull names, images, and personal details where possible, plus causes and circumstances of death, into a comprehensive data set. We’re counting because there is no official count.

Audiences don’t appear out of nowhere for journalism of any kind. Audiences are reached, and built, and earned, and sometimes deserved, but they don’t materialize from nothing.

As part of this project, the Guardian U.S. audience team has been working very closely with our reporters, editors, and interactive team right from the start on an integrated approach that puts the audience and the community at the heart of the journalism. The result has been, so far, hundreds of tips and submissions including from the family, friends, and legal teams of some of the people killed, including several killings that had never been reported before. And the count has topped 500.

The Counted is designed as an ongoing project, not a snapshot of a moment in time — it’s designed to be active. In order for us to keep the count up to date, we need help from a wider community.

Listening and taking part

As a global media organization, The Guardian has a great starting point for finding an audience for a project like this, which is also an attempt to hold U.S. police forces to account at a time when police brutality and conduct is under intense scrutiny.

But we know that’s not enough to sustain a community where people take part. We need to build a community around The Counted that is keen to follow this issue longer-term, and who are able to spread the word.

So we’re building a multilayered approach. We want the journalism itself to reach the widest possible audience who are interested. Then we want the people within that who care deeply about this issue to develop a longer-term relationship with the project. We want people who have something important to contribute to be only a few steps away from our reporters (in Kevin Bacon terms) so that information reaches us promptly. We have a tips form, but that’s only part of the equation: A tips form is no good if no one knows where to find it.

Go where people are

Real people use Facebook to keep track of the things that they care about. We wanted to reach people who cared about police killings, not who care about The Guardian, so we knew we couldn’t rely on The Guardian’s existing social media presence. We needed an approach that would help us find and connect with people who care passionately about one issue, and allow us to showcase the depth and breadth of our work in this area — getting that work to the people who care the most, without annoying those who care the least.

So the U.S. audience team, with Kayla Epstein taking the lead on implementation, has built dedicated Twitter and Facebook pages for The Counted, and we’re looking at building communities on other platforms too. Most importantly, these are works in progress: evolving communities that will change over time along with the journalism they’re embedded in.

On Twitter, we’re building along the following ideas:

  • It’s built around the rapid propagation of information through loosely connected communities, which lets us rapidly spread callouts via a few individuals with many links to others who share those interests.
  • It lets us reach activists, journalists, and prominent individuals who care deeply about the sue of police violence and the reporting of killings.
  • It’s fast and staccato, and we can achieve higher volume of output there, giving us more opportunities to share everything we produce.
  • It lets us be part of an open conversation about these issues, both as a reference point (people tagging @thecounted in conversations as evidence) and as a participant where we need to.

On Facebook, our approach and our tactics are quite different:

  • It’s a much slower platform, driven by conversations that persist over time.
  • It needs care in crafting those conversations on our page, because they’re ‘owned’ there, rather than on Twitter where a user’s comments sit only with themselves.
  • It has capacity for reach beyond any other platform, especially in the U.S., and most people are comfortable communicating there — including some who communicate there almost exclusively.
  • It allows for targeting, so if we’re searching for more details on a specific incident, we can fine-tune our approach.

The nature of Facebook mandates us to moderate: We’re enforcing community guidelines that ask our users to respect each others’ opinions even when they differ greatly, to avoid personal attacks, to be constructive rather than destructive. We can’t and shouldn’t avoid debate on this topic, but we have to be able to avoid abuse and flame wars. Facebook’s tools make this tricky but not impossible to manage, especially at this relatively small scale.

The audience team is stepping in to field contributions, to respond to questions, to do lots of the basic things that any community management team does — and so is the reporting team, answering questions about methodology, about ethics, about which deaths are counted and how. This is a collaborative effort to inform the community, and to help them to feel that if they ask, we’ll answer. That this is not something we’re building to abandon, but an ongoing project that values their involvement. We say thank you when they tip us off.

We’re already starting to see superusers develop — people who direct other people as to the rules of the page, how to keep informed, where to submit suggestions — which is a fantastic early sign of community health. We’re seeing people submit multiple stories through the tips form, too. We know that when it comes time to spread word of a particular incident, we can reach out to these communities to ask for help. We know they’re interested, and we know that collectively they have far more connections than any one of our journalists could have.

Lots of small communities

Each time another person is killed by the police, a new community forms around that death: friends and family of the victims and the officers involved, and perhaps bystanders or witnesses. Beyond those immediately involved, there are readers who have followed a local story in their hometown, and protesters who’ve been gathering in cities around the country demanding justice. For The Counted to work, we need to reach as many of those communities as possible, however large or small, and encourage them to speak with us. And many of those communities contain few people who would think to go to The Guardian.

So my audience team worked closely with the interactive team from the start to design a series of features to help us reach those communities. Here’s a few:

  • Each story within the interactive can be linked individually and tweeted from the detail view, so we can easily spread word about specific incidents where our reporters need more information or where details are sketchy.
  • There’s an admin backend that allows the audience team to easily pull images sized and formatted for social channels based on any name and on both the total count and monthly counts.
  • The backend also generates updated avatars for social feeds, which gives us a very simple way to keep driving engagement. Every time the count updates on the interactive, we can also update our social presence. That gives us a touch point every day with our community, a way to keep The Counted front of mind.
  • The interactive team has also produced simple graphics that work both in stories and for social media, containing both the data and the link back to the journalism.
  • The data is downloadable, so anyone can work with it to create their own visualization or use it in their own work.

Asking for help

The Counted went live with a form asking for tips and submissions to the project, because there’s a lot we don’t know. There are deaths we don’t yet know about, questionable incidents that don’t make it into local media reports, and inaccuracies within our data. Because so much of the journalism is based purely on police reports, there is often additional information to add. So we have been asking for the community who care about this issue to support us in getting the word out, and to tell us more about what they know.

The response so far has been staggering. Some submissions add details about deaths we had already counted — a photo of Nikki Burtsfield, corrections about David Felix’s name — and others contribute deaths we didn’t know about, like Donald Allen and Edelmiro Hernandez. Our community holds us to account, too, on issues like Mya Hall’s name and gender. We’ve heard from friends and family of people killed, as well as those who’ve seen a story in their local media, or who remember something happening.

We know this is a long project. We need our communities to be happy to contribute and to get the word out, in order to be able to sustain our journalism. The Counted is not just the work of The Guardian. The crowd is helping us count.

Mary Hamilton is audience director and assistant editor at The Guardian U.S. She previously worked for The Guardian in London and in Sydney at the launch of the newspaper’s Australia site.

POSTED     June 17, 2015, 8:30 a.m.
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