Image: GIJN, YouTube
In our era of data-driven journalism, connecting the dots can lead to groundbreaking revelations — and Social Network Analysis (SNA) is a technique that enables investigative journalists to do just that.
SNA — a fascinating world of connections, patterns, and hidden stories — is a powerful addition to the journalist’s toolkit, enabling them to uncover the hidden web of relationships that shape our world. And it isn’t just about connecting dots; it can also reveal complex narratives that lie beneath the surface. Whether you’re delving into issues such as climate change and environmental crises or exploring connections between terrorist cells, SNA offers ample possibilities.
At the 13th Global Investigative Journalism Conference (GIJC23) in Sweden, Brant Houston — co-founder and board chairperson of GIJN, co-founder of the Investigative News Network, and Knight Chair in Investigative Reporting at the University of Illinois — shared the tools for doing it well.
Tools of the Trade
NodeXL is a network analysis and visualization software package for Microsoft Excel, making it accessible and simple to use for those already familiar with spreadsheet software. Gephi is a free, open source visualization tool. Houston said he mostly uses the latter — which he explains is ideal for journalists because it facilitates collaboration and the exchange of ideas: “I am surprised that not many journalists use this powerful tool,” said Houston.
For journalists delving into SNA, Houston also recommended connecting with the International Network of Social Network Analysis (INSNA). “It is one of the funniest names I have seen, but this network offers workshops and seminars, fostering connections with experts in the field,” he said. “Their support and guidance can be instrumental for journalists venturing into the world of SNA.” The Network’s conferences are also “a goldmine of ideas and connections,” said Houston — akin to “shopping for investigative story ideas, providing a wealth of inspiration for years to come,” he added.
SNA in journalism was showcased in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)’s groundbreaking Panama Papers investigation. These documents revealed a global web of corruption and tax evasion, highlighting the importance of tracing hidden connections. Two other compelling examples of SNA in action include the investigation They Rule, an exploration of corporate board connections, and an analysis of terrorist cells involved in the 9/11 attacks.
They Rule — a data visualization project started in 2005 by San Francisco-based designer Josh On — is an interactive tool that reveals interlocking directories among the largest US companies. It highlights, for example, that 87 out of the top 100 US companies in 2021 share board directors, and allows site visitors to explore these connections and create shareable maps. It also sheds light on how power is concentrated within a select few who frequently transition between corporate and government roles — mostly unnoticed by the public.
Another example of SNA in the wild is the work of Latvian-American researcher Valdis E. Krebs, who analyzed the terrorist network behind the 9/11 attacks. “His paper, Mapping Networks of Terrorist Cells, offers a tutorial-like resource for anyone interested in SNA,” said Houston. Krebs used news reports and articles to build a database and visualize the connections among terrorist cells, and his analysis demonstrated how individuals and groups were interconnected in complex, often unexpected ways.
Key SNA Concepts: Closeness, Centrality, and Betweenness
Houston noted that SNA involves three important concepts:
- Closeness: This is about how close or how far your subject is from the center of a network. “If you think about it in sociological terms, for example… marginalized groups, like migrants, are often very far away from the center of the community,” said Houston. “But this can be counterintuitive,” he added: Just because a subject is far from the center, doesn’t mean they don’t hold power — and this is why it’s important to consider the other two concepts.
- Centrality: The subject with the most connections in the network.
- Betweenness: This is the aspect that Houston finds most interesting. “Having a high degree of betweenness is like being a gatekeeper. Because you can’t go from one island of a network to another island of the network without going through this person. They connect different groups. They may not necessarily have many connections, but they are essential,” said Houston.
While SNA offers tremendous potential, there are also some challenges involved with this technique. “Data integrity is paramount, as the quality of your findings depends on the quality of your data,” warned Houston. “Careful data verification and validation are essential.”
As in any complex story, translating complicated SNA findings into accessible narratives is crucial: “Avoiding jargon and using simple language ensures your audience grasps the significance of your discoveries,” Houston added.
Watch the full GIJC23 panel of Using Social Network Analysis for Investigations.