MuckRock Assignments eases investigative reporting process while making it more transparent

Digging through pages of public records documents can be a daunting task for journalists. MuckRock, a nonprofit that helps users file and track public records, is lessening the burden with its tool Assignments while making the reporting process more transparent to readers.

MuckRock Assignments is a simple, re-usable crowdsourcing platform that helps newsrooms manage user submissions while helping turn raw documents into clean data sets.

MuckRock — one of nine 2018-19 RJI Fellows — will be spending the next several months refining the Assignments tool and getting it into the hands of more newsrooms.

About Assignments and how it came to be

MuckRock launched Assignments after hearing concerns from reporters about the challenges of digging through large FOIA documents to find exactly what is needed for stories.

“It’s become a real challenge for people to understand what’s actually in [these documents] and make sure they are telling the full story,” says Michael Morisy, co-founder of MuckRock and fellowship project leader.

MuckRock wanted to help its newsroom users, while also bringing readers into the reporting process, he says. With Assignments, newsrooms recruit the public or newsroom staff to help dig through FOIA documents on the MuckRock site. Participants then share their findings by answering questions about the documents they read. By involving readers, the newsgathering process becomes more transparent, says Morisy.

“People don’t always understand how reporters do their job, and so they don’t really appreciate all the work that goes into telling investigative stories,” he says. “Assignments will allow newsrooms to bring their readers into the reporting process, building trust and a deeper relationship with their audience. In the long-term it will lead to a more loyal readership that is also more likely to financially support the news organization, helping tackle creative, data-driven stories at a scale that would otherwise be impossible.”

Improving Assignments and getting it into the hands of journalists

During the fellowship, Morisy plans to continue improving Assignments by making the tool’s interface more user-friendly and intuitive for journalists to use, he says.

He also wants to help improve the experience of readers helping newsrooms with an Assignment. This could include making other people’s interesting finds visible to them and offering rewards to readers for participating.

As Morisy works to improve the tool and get it into the hands of more journalists, he will be conducting user research interviews to find out what kinds of projects this tool might be the most useful for and how to make it more accessible to journalists, he says.

He also wants to help making the crowdsourcing process easier for journalists, he says, so he plans to spend part of his fellowship conducting case studies in effort to produce best practices about involving others in this specific reporting process.


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