By Julia Luscher Thompson
When 23-year-old confidential informant Rachel Hoffman was murdered in a botched drug sting, her story begged to be told, especially to young readers. But young people aren’t reading the daily Tallahassee Democrat as often as they once did, so we had to find a way to bring the story to them.
Enter Facebook and Twitter.
Social networks popular with the crowd we were trying to reach seemed to be a logical place to start. Several months after we expanded our coverage to these sites, the results have been promising, and we’re looking for additional ways to employ social networking techniques to tell Hoffman’s and others’ stories.
Hoffman was facing charges of possession of marijuana when she agreed to work as a confidential informant with Tallahassee police in May. Other charges were pending. During the sting, her hidden wire failed as she was attempting to buy Ecstasy, cocaine and a gun from two men. Police lost track of her, and she was shot repeatedly.
Police initially blamed Hoffman’s death on her allegedly violating protocol but they refused to release details because it was part of an ongoing investigation.
The debate about the use of confidential informants raged in Tallahassee and police culpability was questioned. After a judge sealed pretrial evidence, we had to look for ways to report the story and keep our coverage alive.
We reported stories about Hoffman’s background, procedures that different agencies use with confidential informants, the national debate about using informants and went wrong the night of her death.
"Immediately we saw so much interest online and in the story chats," said lead reporter Jennifer Portman. "Her friends were checking in with our Web site all the time. The morning she went missing, the first place her boyfriend checked was Tallahassee.com."
Hoffman’s boyfriend and one of her best friends, speaking to Portman on the condition of anonymity, helped provide a turning point in the coverage. The two told Portman many details of Hoffman’s last night—details our reporters could not get from police.
"We had law enforcement investigating law enforcement, and you saw all these layers," Portman said. "Not only did we have to get through one law-enforcement agency, but we had the state law-enforcement agency and the DEA involved. &1033; We had to talk to her friends, her family, her best friend to start filling in some of those blanks of what happened that night."
Hoffman’s story was of particular interest to her peers. She had recently graduated from Florida State University, but students were headed out of town for the summer as her saga began.
So as the students — some 65,000 of them — flocked back to Tallahassee in August, we looked for ways to get this important story out to them. With fewer young people picking up the newspaper, we knew this story warranted something different. We had to bring it to them on their turf and hope that it was the public-service journalism that could energize this elusive audience.
"Rachel Hoffman is someone that so many of those students can relate to," Portman said. "She looks like them, she talks like them. They could so closely identify with her."
Tapping online tools
With that in mind, we started a Facebook group and Twitter account dedicated to the Hoffman case.
(See original story for links and multimedia) As one of the leading social networks among college students and young professionals, Facebook seemed like a logical place to start. Hoffman’s friends already had created group about her there, so we started by inviting those users to the new group dedicated to keeping people updated with developments in the case and hosting an area for discussion about media coverage of it.
The group has more than 250 members — not a huge audience, but made up of readers who might not have known about the story otherwise.
Scott Ellington, 29, a self-employed software developer and FSU grad, was one such reader. He stumbled upon our coverage through the Twitter account the Democrat had set up.
Twitter is a growing social network that allows users to post short status updates that other users can read online or receive on their mobile phones as text messages. We update our Twitter account and Facebook page specific to this story every time there’s a turn of the screw in the case. Every post is accompanied by a link to a broader story on our site, as well as a special page that contains all of our coverage.
When Ellington saw the Twitter updates, he was intrigued that the story had local impact and that it affected a young person like him.
"She had an education, and she came from a well-to-do family," Ellington said. "I’d say that reflects a lot of young people in this town."
After following the updates on Twitter, Ellington also joined the Facebook group.
"I’m not a news junkie by any means," he said. "I like to filter my information so I don’t get a lot of stuff that I don’t care about."
Although Hoffman’s case resonated with Ellington, he said he wasn’t willing to work for the information. He said that he wouldn’t go to a Web site just to find out about it but that he did read the information and follow the links to stories provided via the Facebook group and Twitter account:
"It’s not necessary at all; it’s just a treat rather than having to manually open up a Web site."
We also uploaded Hoffman-related videos to a YouTube channel to expose them to a wider audience and link to our site.
Gauging the impact
In addition to these tools, we also have used text alerts to keep people updated with developments in the story and streamed a news conference via live video on Tallahassee.com. Before the news conference, we alerted people on our Twitter and Facebook pages.
"I think the story really fit nicely into these new platforms because of who she was, because she was 23 years old," Portman said. "She was constantly texting, and she was plugged in."
Hoffman’s boyfriend sent executive editor Bob Gabordi a message on Facebook soon after we expanded our coverage there.
"I was Rachel Hoffman’s boyfriend at the time she was killed. I want to thank you personally for all you have done. I know there have been a lot of people who have gotten mad at you for keeping this on the front pages. I honestly don’t think all the facts that are out so far would be available if it weren’t for you and your staff."
Although we’re working on reporting and presenting this story in new ways and to new audiences, our focus is still the journalism. Our reporters and editors have provided strong content that is making a real difference in Tallahassee.
One police officer has been fired, four others have been suspended, and two—including the chief—have been reprimanded. A new law, Rachel’s Law, is being proposed to provide better protection to confidential informants.
Along with Portman, reporters Nic Corbett and Corey Clark are part of the reporting team that helped uncover details of the case that held police accountable. Gabordi and senior project editor Ron Hartung have provided guidance for digital and print coverage, and many others in our newsroom have had a hand in keeping this story alive and important to our readers.
We used to regard social networking sites as competition, but with this story in particular, they have become allies for us to reach an important audience with an important story.
"Because we kept with the story in print and online and were trying to find as many ways to get it to new people as possible, Hoffman has become a part of this community," Portman said. "She’s put a face on what is a gray area of law enforcement that needs more scrutiny."
The Tallahassee police internal-affairs investigation and the Florida Attorney General’s Office review of the agency’s confidential-informant procedures have been released, and our lawyers continue to fight for the release of pretrial evidence. Our reporters and editors are still looking for new ways to report the story and engage readers.
"We were trying to reach out to all kinds of readers however we could," Portman said. "It gave this story and this issue the heightened importance that it deserved. We didn’t let it go away, and it would have been easier to."
Julia Luscher Thompson is the digital communities editor for the Tallahassee Democrat and Tallahassee.com. She is a 2006 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
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