How journalists are using DocumentCloud to support facts in their stories

Anti-press sentiment, fueled in no small part by President Trump, has left news organizations looking for new ways to bolster lagging trust. One way to increase trust is to improve the transparency of newsrooms by making journalists’ information-gathering processes more visible to the public.

Some newsrooms are accomplishing this by using DocumentCloud, an online platform that allows journalists to embed source documents as PDFs in their stories. Initially funded by a grant from the Knight News Challenge, DocumentCloud was launched in 2009 as a tool to aid investigative journalists. Journalists upload documents sourced in their stories to its servers, where they can be viewed by readers. In summer 2018, DocumentCloud merged with MuckRock, a nonprofit, collaborative news site working to improve transparency in government.

Few journalists using DocumentCloud to post source documents are explaining how they obtained or verified the documents, leaving an important opportunity for even greater transparency on the table.

Niv Mor, a doctoral student at the University of Haifa, and Zvi Reich, associate professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, wanted a better understanding of how journalists are using this tool. They analyzed a random selection of 315 documents that were attached to 200 news stories using DocumentCloud, and categorized them into the following four ways they might be used in a story:

  1. Presenting evidence to support facts in the story
  2. Presenting counter-evidence to challenge facts in a story
  3. Presenting additional information about a story, and/or
  4. Inviting the audience to get involved in the newsmaking process by verifying the documented data.

They also categorized the documents by the type of media outlet that had posted it (traditional media or some form of alternative media, such as citizen journalists or writers for non-governmental organizations). They also considered whether the story that linked to the source documents was a “regular” news story — which they defined as covering recent or upcoming events — or an investigative report, commentary, or an article that advocated for a specific policy or issue.

Mor and Reich found that traditional news organizations used DocumentCloud more frequently than alternative media sites. Of the 200 news stories they studied, 71 percent were published by journalists from traditional media outlets. Also, the majority (66 percent) of news stories with embedded documents were what they called “regular” news stories, not investigative pieces. Overwhelmingly, the most common use (96 percent) of the embedded documents was as evidence of claims the reporter or a source made in the story.

Use of document Traditional Media Alternative Media Total
Presentation of counter-evidence 98% 90% 96%
Presentation of additional information 21% 19% 21%
Presentation of additional information 50% 51% 50%
Asking for audience participation by inviting the public to help verify information in the documents 11% 12% 11%

Mor and Reich also examined how transparent journalists were about the documents they provided. They found that 26 percent of the stories they studied offered a clear description of how the journalists got the documents. However, very few (4 percent) included any type of explanation of how journalists had verified the documents.

These findings suggest that journalists are open to using tools that bring more transparency to the reporting process. Those using DocumentCloud mainly want to offer supporting evidence for their stories and, to a lesser extent, provide context or background. However, this study found that few journalists are explaining how they obtained or verified the documents they shared, leaving an important opportunity for even greater transparency on the table. Journalists may also be missing an opportunity to encourage direct participation from their audiences by inviting readers to help verify the information in the documents.

Overall, DocumentCloud could be an effective means of increasing readers’ trust in news organizations, provided journalists use the tool to its full capability.

Citation

Mor, N., & Reich, Z. From “Trust Me” to “Show Me” Journalism: Can DocumentCloud help to restore the deteriorating credibility of news? Journalism Practice.