Public Insight Network offers new opportunities for the Center’s investigative reporting

In early November, the Center for Public Integrity launched our partnership with American Public Media's Public Insight Network or PIN — a group of over 90,000 people (and counting) that have signed up to be "citizen sources" to help journalists all around the country.

Starting off, we weren't quite sure what to expect, but the initial results in just two months have been tremendous.

Our first attempt at querying the Public Insight Network came from reporter Kristen Lombardi's coverage of an Environmental Protection Agency proposal to regulate coal ash — the toxic byproduct of burning coal to produce electricity. With the public comment period for the agency's proposal drawing to a close, we thought it would be interesting to find folks who might be living near a coal ash disposal site and hear how the waste might be affecting their community.

Using the data gathered for our initial reports on coal ash, we searched the PIN for sources who lived in or near zip codes that contained a coal-producing power plant or coal ash disposal site. We then sent an email to each of these individuals, asking them about their experience with coal ash and how informed they were about the EPA's current debate over regulation. We quickly received more than 30 responses, a majority of which contained rich insights into how communities across the country were coping with coal ash waste, providing many good leads for our reporters to pursue.

Following up on these leads, we were able to report two original stories based on two communities currently struggling with a local coal ash dumpsite: one in La Belle, PA, and the other in Giles County, VA. Without the help of PIN, we would not have easily been able to find these sources and identify the troubles that their communities are experiencing. Our first use of the network turned out to be a resounding success.

The Center's next PIN query came from our finance team, who were looking to engage readers and develop ideas for our Financial Reform Watch blog. We sent out around a form asking sources about their credit card use and how it might have changed over the last year, focusing on any increase in interest rates or fees, and even adding a question about expectations for the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The more than 200 responses we received revealed several promising leads, and reporter Ben Hallman is currently working on a story based on some of the trends we spotted in the results.

Looking ahead to next year, the Center has big plans for this amazing resource represented by the Public Insight Network. We're proud to be one of four pilot partners for SOURCE — a new web app that gives PIN members new opportunities to share what they know with our organization and other partner newsrooms. The new site will also allow users to keep their information and interests up-to-date, see their responses to individual queries and how journalists are using them, and provide a more direct pipeline to newsrooms around the country. It's a very exciting initiative, and we're eager to help develop what the network can do for our no-stone-unturned brand of investigative journalism in the coming months.

The Center’s executive director, Bill Buzenberg, was instrumental in forming the Public Insight Network when he worked as head of news for Minnesota Public Radio, along with the first PIN Director, Michael Skoler. The Center has even bigger plans to make use of the network to further its investigative reporting in 2011.

“Great investigative journalism starts with the ability of reporters and editors to reach people on the front lines who are facing danger, fighting wrongdoing or seeking to blow the whistle,” the Center’s executive editor John Solomon said. “The PIN is one of the powerful new tools that helps reporters accomplish that by tapping a social network of engaged, educated and respected news readers.”

If you haven't signed up to be a source yet, or just want to learn more about the PIN, you can do that here. Your insights, experience, and expertise will go a long way in strengthening the core of our work, and help us preserve our commitment to the public interest.

If you have any questions or suggestions regarding the network, feel free to email Cole Goins at cgoins@publicintegrity.org, or send me a message on Twitter: @colegoins.

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