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May 22, 2023, 1:05 p.m.
Audience & Social

How one journalist uses Instagram to pull back the curtain on her reporting process

“We ask people every day to let us in at their worst moments. To give nothing of ourselves in return sometimes feels like denying that we’re [also] people in this equation.”

As a D.C. crime and criminal justice beat reporter for The Washington Post, Emily Davies has a few strategies for understanding how her sources see the world. Following people she covers on social media — including some public officials, but mostly “community folks” — helps her “know what they’re doing day to day, how they’re thinking, and it helps me stay connected,” she said. Because many of her sources use Instagram, that platform plays a central role in fostering those virtual connections.

But Davies used to follow sources from her personal Instagram account, which created a dilemma familiar to many reporters: Where to draw personal and professional boundaries? The sources she followed “requested to follow me back,” she told me in an interview, which left her conflicted. Davies felt some desire to maintain a separation between the personal account full of pictures of her friends and family, and people she knew professionally, but also wanted to open up part of herself to the people who shared so much with her for her work.

“I started thinking about how I could be more transparent and vulnerable with them in ways that I asked them to be with me,” she said, “without opening my entire personal life and making myself a part of their story.”

For Davies, who is 25 and has worked for the Post full-time since 2020, this social media quandary embodied a deeper tension she feels as a reporter. “We ask people every day to let us in at their worst moments,” she said. “To give nothing of ourselves in return sometimes feels like denying that we’re [also] people in this equation.”

So in late January, she created @emilydaviesreports, a public Instagram account that offers sources and readers a window into her day-to-day life and process as a reporter — from snapshots of her writing process, to safety gear she uses to cover protests, to strategies she uses to unwind and stave off emotional exhaustion in an often grueling reporting routine.

 

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A post shared by Emily Davies (@emilydaviesreports)

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Emily Davies (@emilydaviesreports)

Almost all reporters rely on social media platforms as reporting tools and key avenues for sharing work today, and many maintain separate professional and personal presences online. But Davies’ Instagram account stands out because it is a product of her desire to reciprocate some of the vulnerability she asks of her sources while maintaining a professional boundary. “It felt like the right way to do that would be to explain how I do the work, and how it makes me feel…and hope that generated some trust with them,” she said.

If you scroll through her posts, you’ll see a laptop and a half-eaten salad as she files from a car; a list of words and phrases that inspire her in her notes app; a handwritten note she left for a professor who survived a shooting; and posts that start with a print newspaper and then show followers some of the people and places that led to that printed story. The posts, while certainly curated, have an intimacy that Davies creates in part by addressing her followers directly in the post captions and inviting them to engage, as well as describing some of the challenges and imperfections of her work.

“Some of the posts try to explain how much goes into each story, even if the story is 200 words,” Davies said (here’s a good example). That’s because she wants her sources to know that “a lot more goes into each story than they can see [in the finished article] — we care about fact-checking, we care about trying every number for every victim of crime, even if they don’t answer. And the line of the story that says ‘efforts to reach XYZ family were unsuccessful’? Something real went into that.”

Davies thinks this is especially important at a time when institutional trust has profoundly eroded. “Part of this is an attempt to reestablish trust, from a perspective of a young reporter who’s come up at a time when people[’s] default…[is] often to be skeptical of the media,” she said.

 

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A post shared by Emily Davies (@emilydaviesreports)

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Emily Davies (@emilydaviesreports)

Davies’ editor, Matt Zapotosky, sees the potential for building trust as well. “I love the account,” he told me. “When she first conceived it, we were talking about how to establish The Washington Post as a more credible and authoritative source of public safety news” that community members rely on and think to contact with news tips. He thinks Davies’ work on social media “has paid dividends” already, with more people recognizing her when she reports at crime scenes.

“The world is kind of moving to people wanting to know the process — they don’t want their journalism to be from a faceless institution,” Zapotosky said. “They want to know who’s behind it; they want to know the kind of discussions that went into it. So we want the Instagram to [share] that.”

Though Davies initially created the account for her day-to-day sources, over the past few months it has grown to about 750 followers with a wider variety of interests. Davies said her followers include some of her sources and D.C. community members, fellow journalists, and “news junkies” from the Post’s national audience. Some journalism professors have asked to share some of the account’s material with students. Davies thinks this may be because some of her posts “show the messiness of reporting in a way that we sometimes deny by writing clearly in the end,” she said. (Disclosure: I came across this account because Davies and I are former colleagues — in college, we worked together on our student newspaper, The Brown Daily Herald, where Davies was editor-in-chief in the year above me.)

“I’m still trying to figure out a little bit who my followers are,” she said, “and it’s obviously still growing, it’s new, and I haven’t made that much of a publicity push to try to get people to follow it. I’ve just sort of been posting when I feel like it’s right, and seeing what happens.”

The account has attracted positive attention internally at the Post, too. At least one of Davies’ colleagues, education reporter Karina Elwood, created her own Instagram account and credited Davies’ account as the inspiration.

The Post’s recently hired, first-ever social media coach, Emma Grazado, has supported the account from the start, Davies said. “She helped me tailor some of the outreach — like what I should have in my bio, and the tone I should strike. If I’m nervous about something toeing a line, I can send it to her.”

Davies “had a really clear idea of her target audience, what she wanted the content and posting style to be, and how to navigate the platform,” Grazado told me in an email.

Davies already enjoyed taking pictures of moments from her work days — sometimes for friends, sometimes to remind her of key details. So creating an Instagram account that documented her reporting process “didn’t add anything to my workflow,” she said. “It felt like taking advantage of something that I already do.”

Interest in the account from other journalists could also be related to Twitter’s problems, Davies added. “People might be looking for a new way to share their information.”

Grazado also highlighted some of the work of the Post’s foreign correspondents on Instagram. Because it is “such a visual platform, it is a great place for them to bring the audiences along with them to different parts of the world,” she wrote, pointing to the accounts of Tokyo/Seoul bureau chief Michelle Ye Hee Lee, Ukraine bureau chief Isabelle Khurshudyan, Southeast Asia bureau chief Rebecca Tan and Cairo bureau chief Siobhán O’Grady as examples.

The Post’s Next Gen politics team, she added — Brianna Tucker, Dylan Wells, and Camila DeChalus — “also does great work across social platforms” including Instagram and TikTok.

Davies does not have a regular posting rhythm. “I’m still trying to get the cadence right,” she said. “If I’m having a really, really busy news week, and it’s taking all my energy to do what I’m doing, sometimes it will slide and then I’ll try to do more of a recap post.” But the posts don’t take her long — typically five or 10 minutes. She sometimes puts them together while waiting for edits on a story, for instance.

The account has also “generated some interesting conversations with [Zapotosky],” she added. “Sometimes if I’m nervous about a post, or nervous about sharing a moment that we’ve talked about, I’ll ask him, and then we get into conversations about the ethics of what we’re doing. It’s another gut check on process.”

One specific instance where the account sparked conversation between him and Davies, Zapotosky recalled, occurred in February when he assigned Davies a story about an unseasonably warm day in D.C., removed from her usual criminal justice beat. After discussing how to frame the story in a unique way, they decided Davies should personalize it and share a chronological account of her day. Though the story touched on climate change as the grim specter behind the beautiful weather, the article still received some criticism, Zapotosky said, for not centering global warming more.

“She was contemplating: Should I respond to this criticism? Should I talk about our conversation in advance and the framing?” Zapotosky said. After a discussion, they ultimately opted not to respond in this instance: “We thought we should save that for a really sensitive, high-public-interest public safety issue, which we often get criticism on.” Zapotosky thinks Instagram “could be a great vessel” for responding to criticism of a story in the future. “That’s a part of this, that people have the ability to ask her about our process,” he said.

Davies is still figuring out what makes a good post for the account. TV appearances, because they’re inherently visual, often feature in her posts. On the other hand, if Davies is working on enterprise stories she doesn’t necessarily want people to know are in the works, or doing longer-term work, those can translate to quieter weeks on Instagram.

The account especially attracted attention after footage of the killing of Tyre Nichols by police officers was released. In late January, shortly after starting the account, Davies traveled to Memphis and spent a week documenting the city’s anger, grief, and resolution. She posted raw photos of protests and Nichols’ funeral, but also included snapshots of eating trail mix for dinner and a coffee cup late at night giving texture to her own experience as a person and reporter keeping up with the physical demands of the week.

Davies thinks her series of posts attracted more attention at this time primarily because “it was a really high-profile national event.” Additionally, “the place of Memphis…was new to me,” which heightened her attention to detail in the photos she took and the details she highlighted in posts.

“It felt like a really, really high-stakes moment,” she said. “I think I felt that so deeply that in everything I wrote for the newspaper or posted, that came across.”

 

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A post shared by Emily Davies (@emilydaviesreports)

Account followers seemed especially curious about “understanding how I went about asking questions,” she said. Davies used the account to ask for input on what questions she should ask Nichols’ parents, and received some responses. For instance, one follower had written, “Can you ask them about their thoughts and emotions knowing residents of the city are likely to react and come out in mass once the video is released”?

“I asked something similar, so replied with their answer,” Davies wrote in a follow-up email.

“It felt like a new and nice way, I think, at a really high-stress moment, of communicating with people about what we were doing,” she reflected. “That trip made me feel like this account could work, and actually add something to the dialogue.”

For others who are interested in creating their own behind-the-scenes reporting accounts on Instagram or elsewhere, Davies suggested “look in your notebook, and in your camera roll, and in your voice memos and your text messages and your Slack messages, and see what content you’re generating by nature, and then figure out how to put that together as a starting place.”

“Leaning into that uniqueness,” she said, “and whatever it is that makes you want to report, and that makes you good at reporting and interested in others and interested in the story, I would just try to harness that.”

Instagram works for her, but the platform depends on the reporter, she added. “Figure out what you’re doing yourself, and then figure out which platform can best elevate it.”

Photo by Washington Post reporter Emily Davies of Davies filing a story from a car. The photo was posted to her reporting Instagram account in January 2023.

Sophie Culpepper is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sophie@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@s_peppered).
POSTED     May 22, 2023, 1:05 p.m.
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