Mazin Sidahmed is co-founding editor and senior reporter at Documented, a nonprofit news site that covers immigration in the New York area.

Journalists often like to say they hold the powerful to account, forgetting that they also hold tremendous power, and give very little thought to how they wield that power. Newsrooms are currently scrambling to fill holes in their coverage around race in what has become a periodic affair, almost like a tradition. A moment of popular revolt leads newsrooms to realize these gaping holes. One way to prevent this from happening again is to reimagine how we use the power we have.

Investigative journalism has the power to topple governments and spark movements. While newsrooms are cutting back across the country, there remain a number of institutions with the resources to fund months-long investigative projects. However, these resources are often reserved for stories crafted with a top-down approach. Journalists build sources or get tips from people in powerful positions who may not be directly affected, or an editor comes up with an idea based on reading other stories. The process usually ends with trying to find people who have been affected by the issue. But what if we reversed the process?

At Documented, we are creating a community-based investigative journalism model. This means we start investigative projects in response to what we hear from the community. Over the past year, we have run a WhatsApp news service for undocumented Spanish speakers in New York City. People regularly send us immigration-related questions. During the pandemic, those questions have switched to “Where can I get food?” and “What do I do if I can’t pay rent?” In one instance, dozens of subscribers asked us how they could get access to a $20 million fund for undocumented immigrants run by the city. When the city wouldn’t give us clear answers, we assigned a reporter to figure out why. The reporter found that the money was distributed to an undisclosed list of organizations that gave only to their members, which the city had not mentioned when promoting the fund in a number of outlets. Our story, published in Spanish, was read widely and led the city to announce more details about the fund.

It’s not easy to do work like this. It takes time to build trust and a presence among communities that are often left out of legacy and traditional media. As newsrooms, we can start doing this work by identifying communities we want to serve. We could then build a virtual forum online where those people are already congregating. Ask what we can do for the community. This means using reporting skills to get readers’ answers on questions about everyday issues. Connect with experts who will happily answer a reporter’s questions. It’s through this work that we’ll find some questions don’t have clear-cut answers, or there are some services that aren’t performing their stated functions. It’s in these gaps in information where investigative journalism can be deployed. Shining a light on these issues will lead to a direct, tangible impact on people’s lives.

This type of work will also help newsrooms avoid another “reckoning.” When you’re in constant dialogue with your readers and building your work in response to their needs, you’ll have a better chance of understanding what their grievances are.

Colorful illustration of a person with long hair raising their hands in the air and bending with the wind.

This essay is part of CREATIVE FUTURES, a series of provocations by thinkers across the arts, documentary, and journalism on how to reimagine their sectors.