Indianapolis, IN (written by Morgan Watkins/Indianapolis Star) -- A local church garnered national attention recently for a video of a boy singing an anti-gay song for a cheering congregation.
A few weeks ago the video had only a handful of views. But after the blog "Joe. My. God." published it on May 29 and then ran the name of the church where it was filmed -- the Apostolic Truth Tabernacle -- the video racked up more than 800,000 views on YouTube.
It wasn't a journalist or even a local resident who traced the video to its source.
It was a man from Texas named Mike, who stumbled across it by accident.
How Mike was able to push an obscure video into the public consciousness reveals something about the changing face of citizen sleuthing. While some citizen journalists develop government sources or mine documents buried in databases, others expose another kind of secret: those hidden in plain sight.
There is so much information available today that the ability of anyone to raise a story's profile online is unprecedented, said Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting. "An individual can create a national or global story," he said, "if it's the right story."
Mike, whose last name The Star agreed to withhold because he has received violent threats over his postings on gay issues, found the video on May 23 while researching a North Carolina pastor whose anti-gay sermon gained national notice.
At that time, the video of the boy, who was applauded after his closing line, "Ain't no homo gonna make it to heaven," had only 16 views. What upset Mike the most was its listing under the YouTube category "comedy."
"It's not funny to sing about a group going to hell," Mike said.
So he decided to find the video's source, starting with the user who posted it, Funnyman1972. A search of the user's videos revealed he was from Indiana and his children's names.
An extensive online search yielded an AOL email address, which triggered a result on Spokeo.com. The name from Spokeo provided a result on Veromi.com for a 40-year-old man from Greensburg. His birth year, 1972, coincided with the username Funnyman1972.
Mike matched the name to the Facebook profile of a Greensburg man whose friends list included children with the names mentioned in the user's videos.
One of his family members had 'Liked' the Apostolic Truth Tabernacle on Facebook.
Digging into Google, he found interior photos of the church, and they matched the room shown on the video.
"It was like, 'Bingo,' " Mike said.
He sent the information to "Joe. My. God.," which mentioned in its May 30 post that an unspecified reader made the discovery.
"It's not . . . a 'Gotcha!' moment. It's much deeper than this," he said. "Because looking at it from the perspective of someone who actually went through that stuff, it's very, very abusive."
Mike, who said he knew he was gay from a young age, grew up going to fundamentalist churches in Texas that were strongly anti-gay.
That is one reason he took the time to research the video. He has computer-science experience but insists anyone with basic skills can do such research.
"I haven't paid for any secret background reports," he said. "Everything I do, you can do from Google."
With a vast array of information available with a few keystrokes, people can now do their own reporting, said Bil Browning, a former Indianapolis resident who runs the blog bilerico.com, which focuses on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.
"That's how one guy found this video on YouTube, and it's become a national story," he said.
Before the Internet became widely used, someone like Mike would have been a source who alerted a reporter about what he had learned, said Brant Houston, the University of Illinois' Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting. Instead, he was able to research it himself and get the information published online.
Now, there is an intermediary category of people like Mike involved in the investigative process -- information collectors.
They can gather valuable information and publish it online but don't necessarily put it in a narrative form or give it context as a journalist would, Houston said.
"They're great information collectors, and now they can distribute it and not have to wait in line at a newspaper to see a reporter or go to a broadcast station," he said. "But they don't necessarily bring the standards of credible journalism to what they're doing."
But Mike doesn't consider what he does to be journalism. He sees himself as a researcher, ferreting out bits of information and sharing them, leaving others to draw conclusions.
"There's so much facts to bring to the forefront that people are not aware of," he said.
But as technology and the media industry evolve, he sees his role, in some ways, as being a journalistic assistant. He can supply the information, allowing journalists or bloggers to take the next step and build stories around it.
"That is the most important thing -- that the information gets out there," he said.