Using Social Media to Inform Your Reporting

Overview and Purpose

To be competitive on the journo job market, you need to think creatively about how to find new story ideas and you must execute breaking news stories better than your peers. This lesson aims to give you an edge on those skills by teaching you how to harness what people put out there about themselves to better inform your stories.

  • This lesson will help students think creatively about what social media can reveal and how it can guide their reporting.
  • Students will have a checklist of social media reporting possibilities. 
  • Students will think about how to verify information social media.
  • Give them a roadmap for finding sources and subjects they wouldn’t have otherwise found. 
Before-Class Assigned Readings

After Mueller report, Twitter bots pushed ‘Russiagate hoax’ narrative,” Ben Collins for NBC, 04/23/2019.

Fire at ‘pizzagate’ shop reignites conspiracy theorists who find a home on Facebook,” Brandy Zadrozny for NBC, 02/01/2019.

How Instagram Threads Became the WikiHow for Gen Z,” Taylor Lorenz for The Atlantic, 06/05/2018.

Russians Flock to Trump Properties to Give Birth to U.S. Citizens,” Katie Zavadski for The Daily Beast, 09/07/2017

Red Pill Boss: All Feminists Want to Be Raped,” Bonnie Bacarisse and Brandy Zadrozny for The Daily Beast, 05/08/2017.

Mom and Dad Hid a Terrible ISIS Secret,” Katie Zavadski for The Daily Beast, 01/17/17.

Finding People Using Social Media Guide

Check out this Finding People Using Social Media Guide, to supplement this overview of reporting using social media lesson plan. 

1. Ask students how they think about approaching reporting.

Start the class by leading a discussion on how students approach traditional reporting. How do they find sources? How do they find out what people have said about particular topics? Who they’re related to? What their beliefs are?

Students will probably bring up social media as one way they background their sources. Steer them to a conversation about what they can find online. 

  • Most people, especially those who are not public figures, are unfiltered on social media
  • They don’t anticipate reporters looking at their accounts
  • Social media also lets you see a historic progression of someone’s life over several years.
2. Assigned Reading Discussion

How did the reporters in our assigned readings find their stories? 

Three buckets:

  1. Social Media to inform stories
  2. Stories about trends on social media
  3. Accountability stories about media companies

Which buckets do these stories fit into?

This lesson plan focuses primarily on #1, but also encourages you to think about #2 and #3. 

3. Social Media Overview: Who uses what?

Brainstorm session for the class: List types of social media and which demographics and groups are most likely to use which types of accounts. This will likely change year-to-year, and students may suggest new types of social media.

For example:

Snapchat – teens, tweens

Facebook – adults, older people, businesses

Instagram – teens and young adults, some businesses and lifestyle brands

Also have students discuss what types of social media they’re familiar with and what kinds of information people typically share on each one. 

For example: 

Twitter is often used for breaking news updates but less so for personal life announcements. 

Facebook has an option for indicating beginnings/ends of relationships or new jobs, unlike Instagram. 

LinkedIn is likely to show you someone’s employment history, but may also lead you to former co-workers who “endorsed” someone on the site.

Tumblr can be used to tap into subcultures, but may or may not lead you to people’s real identities. 

4. Exercise: How can you find these sources?

Review Caroline Chen’s article, “The Birth Tissue Profiteers.” At one point in the article, Chen recounts conversations with women who donated birth tissues that were later sold:

The supply chain for amniotic therapy starts and finishes with people who are at vulnerable times in their lives: the cells come from new mothers, and go to chronically ill patients. Women who undergo cesarean sections are often asked to donate their birth tissue shortly before the procedure. By law, they cannot be compensated for it. Mothers who donated their tissue told ProPublica and The New Yorker that they assumed, or were assured, that it would be used for a worthy cause—and that, otherwise, it would be disposed of as medical waste. But they could not recall the details of the donation process, owing to the haze of childbirth. “Someone walked in with a form while I was in labor and asked if I wanted to donate” the umbilical cord, Julie Menge, who gave birth in Pittsburgh in 2015, said. “I said, ‘Sure!’ And I have no idea what happened to it.”

In reporting this story, Chen knew which doctors and clinics were allegedly involved in this trade, but faced the challenge of finding women who could talk to her about their experiences.

Devise a plan for finding women who might have been affected if you know the names of the OBGYNs alleged to be involved. How would you start looking for them? How would you use social media?


Facebook – search for baby announcement posts mentioning these doctors

(search for key words, like doctors’ names, in quotes using the search bar.)

Facebook – do the doctors’ clinics have Facebook pages or groups? Have potential sources “checked in” there, or left reviews? You can message these people on Facebook or use person locator tools to call them. 

Facebook – Look at the comments on photos posted by the Facebook page representing the doctor/clinic. Do people comment about their experiences as patients? Do they mention having children delivered by the doctor(s)?

Instagram – Look at the comments on instagram photos. Do people comment about their experiences as patients? Do they mention having children delivered by the doctor(s)?

Instagram – If there is a page for the clinic or doctor, see if you can see who has tagged them in photos. This may take you to patients’ profiles and allow you to message them with interview requests.

Instagram – are there hashtags used by the clinic or doctor? Searching by that hashtag may allow you to find patients.

Instagram – Have people checked in at the clinic or doctors’ office? Do they post about why they were there?

5. BRAINSTORM: What kind of information should you look for? Let’s make a checklist.

The goal of this brainstorm is to try to systematize incorporating social media into your reporting. Ask students to think about three types of stories: Quick turns or breaking news, medium-term enterprise reporting, and investigations. Write those categories on the board and invite students to throw our examples of how they may incorporate social media into each of those.


  • See how people are responding to a breaking news event by searching posts by keyword or looking at responses on someone’s Facebook wall. 
  • Background sources by looking at their social media accounts.
  • Look for trends: What groups exist around particular topics/keywords? How many members do they have? Are they growing in number?
  • On Instagram and Facebook, look at who checks in at various locations. Are there any trends?
  • What hashtags do people use?
6. Exercise: Approaching Online Communities

Sometimes reporters must gain access to closed online communities to observe interactions or approach sources. Remember that the same journalistic ethics apply online as offline, and you must accurately represent yourself when approaching people. 

For this exercise, let’s go back to Caroline Chen’s story. Pretend you are asking the moderator of a closed Facebook group for new mothers to give you access to her members. 

How would you approach her? Write a brief note you would send via Facebook Message.

7. How to Locate Social Media Accounts

Sometimes you have someone’s name, but you want to find their Instagram page. Other times, you have someone’s Twitter account but you want to find their real name.

These are things you’ll get better at with trial and error. But in the meantime, here are some tips – some using paid tools, others not – on how to find social media accounts and IRL identities.

Twitter – Twitter does not have an easy way to search by contact information, but one way to see if an account belongs to a person for whom you a phone number or email address is to create a throwaway Twitter account with a throwaway email address.

Add the email and phone number you want to run against Twitter users to your fake email’s contacts, and then use the “find people you know” function on your fake Twitter account. If the person you’re searching for used that contact information to register an account, you will find it. If nothing comes up, it doesn’t mean they don’t have an account – just that they didn’t use the contact information you checked.

You can also get some information on who’s behind a Twitter account by using the “forgot password” button for their username. It will give you a hint of the email address or phone number used to register the account. Be sure not to actually reset the password, of course.

Facebook – Often, people link their Facebook accounts to their primary email addresses and cell phone numbers for two-factor authentication. You can try dropping someone’s cell phone number or email address into the Facebook search bar to try to locate their account. 

If that is not successful and you suspect someone is using a fake name on Facebook, you can try googling their names together with Facebook. If they have changed their display name but not their customized URL, the account may still come up. 

Broadly – People often use the same or similar usernames across multiple sites. Paid services like PIPL will try to help you track that. (You can sign up for a free trial if you just need it for a project.) You can also try to find usernames by looking at what email addresses are linked to individuals in person locators like Nexis and Accurint. Ask your professor or journalism librarian what people finding tools your school gives you access to.

For instance, if someone is linked to an email like on Nexis, they may use a similar handle for Tumblr or Youtube. You can google the handle to see if any social media accounts come up. Of course, anything that appears won’t be a definitive link to the person. You’ll have to verify the connection in other ways. 

People who are more private can also be found through posts tagged by relatives or friends. 

8. Trust But Verify

Question: How do we verify what people put on their social media? How do we verify that a social media account belongs to the person it claims to belong to?

Sometimes this is possible to do – for instance, if you’re messaging with a Facebook account and you know what the person the account is purporting to be looks like, you can ask them to record a personalized video saying hello to you (same goes for Tumblr or Twitter or Instagram).

Sometimes, it’s more difficult. Maybe the person you’re looking for is deceased, or maybe you don’t want them to know you’re looking at them just yet. Maybe they’re incarcerated, or you can’t get in touch, as often happens in breaking news situations.

A safe approach is to explain to your readers (and your editors) as much as possible why you think the social media account you’re citing is credible.

Discussion point: Did the articles we read for class do this? If so, how?

Cross-reference what the social media account tells you with what you know from other sources. For example, if you’re looking at what you think is the account of a potential suspect in a breaking news situation, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do the biographical details on the account line up with information released by law enforcement?
  • Do the relatives of this social media account line up with the relatives of the suspect, as I know them from services like Accurint, Spokeo, Cubib or Thatsthem? 
  • Have I been able to link this account to email addresses or phone numbers used by the person I am looking for?
3-2-1 Exit Ticket Assessment

Have students answer these three brief concluding reflection questions on paper or through an online service like Socrative:

3. Write down three takeaways from this lesson;

2. Write down two questions you still have after this lesson;

1. Write down the one thing you enjoyed the most about this lesson.