Using Facebook and other tools to engage your community online

Lessons from ProPublica, Vox, The Coral Project, and more

Joe Amditis
Jan 6, 2017 · 3 min read

Before we start, I have to thank Andrew Losowsky and the rest of the people involved in the Crowd Powered News Network for giving me the heads-up on this awesome list of crowdsourcing and community engagement resources.

First up, we have three articles about ProPublica’s efforts to build and engage communities on Facebook as part of their reporting efforts on patient harm and Agent Orange exposure. Their investigation into patient harm is from 2012, but many of the lessons are still just as relevant today. Reporters at ProPublica took to Facebook to accomplish several goals as part of this project, among other things to:

  1. Create a space where patients, providers, and journalists could discuss their experiences openly.
  2. Meet patients, victims, and providers in Facebook groups and other places that they already frequented.
  3. Create a series of discussions and questionnaires to gather additional information and generate tips for further reporting.
  4. Use their online interactions to create a database of sources.

Check out this article from ProPublica and this article from NiemanLab to get the full story on ProPublica’s reporting efforts on patient harm.

Later, in 2015, ProPublica’s Terry Parris Jr. teamed up with The Virginian-Pilot and took to Facebook once again, this time to collect and investigate stories about the potential effects of exposure to Agent Orange among the children and grandchildren of Vietnam War-era veterans.

Parris lays out five of the biggest takeaways from their work on this project in this post on Medium. He summarized them in five bullet points, which I’ve copied here. Parris gives us the following list:

  1. Holy crap, email!
  2. The right community isn’t always the biggest.
  3. If you’re not listening, you’re doing it wrong.
  4. Iterate with your community.
  5. Have a plan for finding stories.

The bullets aren’t very explanatory on their own, which is why you should check out the original post if you really want to know how they did it.

Also included in the list of crowdsourcing and community engagement resources linked above (and here) is:

  • This recent post from the Coral Project explaining the particulars of the “real name fallacy.” According to J. Nathan Matias, “Not only would removing anonymity fail to consistently improve online community behavior — forcing real names in online communities could also increase discrimination and worsen harassment.”
  • This update from Lauren Katz on Vox’s efforts using Facebook to learn more about Obamacare enrollees. “We’ve learned that a Facebook community can be an incredibly productive space for our readers to go through a shared experience together,” Katz explains, “and for us at Vox to interact with our audience in a completely new way.”
  • And finally, Mimi Onuoha, Jeanne Pinder, and Jan Schaffer put together this extensive Guide to Crowdsourcing for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. In it, they argue that, among other things, publishers “must demonstrate active engagement and reward the community during the crowdsourcing process, by actively participating in comments or updating contributors on a story’s progress, to encourage more contributions.” They go on to acknowledge that many organizations “have created additional venues, such as Facebook Groups, to continue the conversation.”

If you happen to come across other lists of resources and tips like this one, please don’t hesitate to pass it along to me at

NJ Mobile News Lab

Experiments in Mobile News Innovation from the Center for…

NJ Mobile News Lab

Experiments in Mobile News Innovation from the Center for Cooperative Media

Joe Amditis

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Joe is the associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University and the host of the WTF Just Happened Today? podcast.

NJ Mobile News Lab

Experiments in Mobile News Innovation from the Center for Cooperative Media