How journalists can use location-based apps as a reporting tool

After hearing a shopping mall was supposedly being evacuated because of a “bomb device,” Andy Stettler turned to his phone.

Using Banjo, a location-based application, Stettler checked the app’s map for geo-tagged social media posts coming out of the mall.

Stettler, executive editor of Main Line Media News, found one of his followers had just checked into the Apple store. He exchanged tweets with the source, learning that only a portion of the mall was being evacuated for what ended up being a hollowed-out grenade.

“From using Banjo I was at least able to figure out quickly that what a couple TV stations were reporting wasn’t true,” Stettler said in an interview with Poynter. 

As geo-tagged information is becoming more widely available, so are the options for how journalists can use it. Location-based service applications designed to use geo-tagged posts — like Banjo, Sonar and Geofeedia — can help journalists find story ideas, develop new sources, and track news events through people posting from the scene.

Steve Buttry, digital transformation editor at Digital First Media, described Banjo as a tool that helps journalists focus on the “where” component of news. The app has a digital map that shows the locations of recent geo-tagged social media posts.

Geofeedia, a paid desktop application aimed at journalists, shows users all the posts coming from one particular location instead of requiring a reporter to search multiple keywords within individual social networks.

“I would think that any cop reporter would want to find people who are tweeting near the scene of any fire, crime, whatever, either to look for potential witnesses or just to see what they’re tweeting,” Buttry told Poynter. “That’s essential to any police reporter or breaking news reporter in my view.”

While hunting sources and information during breaking news is the most obvious way to use location-based applications, monitoring trends specific to one area can also generate stories and insight.

Katy Newton, a former Knight fellow, is still developing Kon*Fab, a location-based service application that would show users what those around them are reading. Newton hopes geo-location information can give insight into not just relevant trends but into why some stories linger in certain communities and not in others.

“For the really savvy journalist you could probably compare communities,” Newton told Poynter. “Geo-location can offer another look at why some stories trend and why others don’t.”

While developing and emerging applications offer new ways to track the news, they come with potential professional and ethical pitfalls.

Applications like Banjo also give users the option to set up a second location, allowing users to monitor who is posting from a particular spot. Geofeedia allows users to see posts from any specified location.

“You’re in New York City and you want to talk to runners in Central Park — that’s legitimate. Where it gets creepy is when you use it to track people’s movements,” said Val Hoeppner, who conducts journalism seminars about mobile technology as director of education for the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute. “If we’re talking about the city councilmen and somebody suggests that he’s having an affair and we track him down using this stuff, is that right? The ethics are really concerning.”

Hoeppner also noted that the digital availability of potential sources “invites lazy reporting,” and that those using the technology to find sources should be mindful of vetting those sources to ensure their reliability. Location-based apps are a good starting point for finding sources and ideas; but they shouldn’t take the place of traditional shoe-leather reporting.

Emerging and developing applications that facilitate the creation of crowd-sourced content based on a reporter’s location and the location of others may end up being useful as more people begin using them.

Vycolone, a free app for iPhone, allows multiple users to take video of one event. The app then stitches the footage together with transitions, creating a complete video. Using Rawporter, available on iPhone and desktops, users can make assignments with monetary values attached, turning anyone into a potential freelancer.

“This is the best of what is going to come out of this location stuff,” Hoeppner told Poynter. “You’re actually producing media with other people based on your location.”

Follow Alexandra Nicolas on Twitter @lexienicolas or contact her at alexandra.r.nicolas@gmail.com.

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  • Adam Vaccaro

    I am waiting with bated breath to hear the first stories about how local news outlets are preparing their strategy with wearable tech (Glass being the prominent example) to tell location-based stories.