Friday, November 12, 2010

How social networks can inspire investigative reporting

Head of Media24's investigative unit, Andrew Trench, writes about how social networks can inspire in-depth reporting, citing a recent four-week long City Press investigation of Tony Yengeni as an example.

About a month ago a Facebook friend posted an interesting status update which directly led to four weeks of investigative reporting by the Media24 Investigation team and which culminated in front page leads carried in this past weekend's editions of Rapport and City Press about how ANC NEC member and convicted fraudster, Tony Yengeni, had broken the law.

It all started when my Facebook friend Herman Lategan (he gave me permission to use his name) posted an indignant observation. He had spotted Yengeni driving in his R1.7m Maserati and swanning about a luxury Greenpoint apartment complex.

The update got me thinking: How does Yengeni afford such a car? After all, he is a convicted fraudster after being sent to jail for getting a dodgy discount on a Merc, and can no longer serve as an MP.

As far as I knew his only salary was from the ANC as head of its soon-to-be-established political school.

And that's how a lot of investigative journalism starts.... with a simple question, a bit of curiousity and then some old-fashioned digging. But we would never have asked that first question had it not been for that Facebook update.

So, Media24 investigations reporter Julian Rademeyer started sniffing around and before long we had established that Yengeni had more than one luxury car and was a director of six companies in contravention of the Companies Act in terms of which it is a criminal offense to be a company director if you have a conviction for a crime of dishonesty. Using online social networks we were even able to source a picture of the Yengeni Maserati.

I think this is a good example of how online social networks can extend a journalist's contact base in ways that we could never imagine before. This is the potential power of crowdsourcing when you have tens of thousands of citizens out there, keeping the powerful on their toes.

In another story we are working on we have been able to develop a source providing useful information on a company which is up to no good using nothing but Twitter. One tweet and a couple of RTs later we had located someone which would otherwise have taken us many days, if not weeks, to locate.

This is another reason why I think it is not a good idea for media owners to deny journalists access to social networks on company networks - imagine the scoops which are passing you by?


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