Crowd sourcing is the term that many businesses — including the news media — are applying to a growing use of the Internet.
Essentially it means announcing a problem or question and then putting out a sort of “open call” to Web users to address that issue or state how they would resolve a problem.
For a journalist, it might simply mean eavesdropping on open conversations about events, issues, or people that take place 24/7 on the social media; most notably Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
Embedded in those chats, posts, tweets, and videos are evidences of the voice of the people.
Hopefully, even a few expert voices.
To help journalists out in this process of crowd sourcing are a few sites which “curate” relevant uploaded observations that appear in the social media. One of the most interesting of these curating sites is called Storify. This site is for anyone who wants to aggregate (curate) information and observation from the Web and include it in stories that write and then post on Storify.
Let’s say you want to write a story about gun control. You simply log into Storify.com (the process of registering an account is free and simple). You are immediately confronted with its home page featuring the latest in breaking news from traditional media like The Washington Post, CNN, ABC News, and The Guardian.
But since you are interested only in gun control, you start asking Storify to focus on that topic. To do that, just go to “Create a Story,” click, and you are presented with a split panel. On the left is your work space to write your story; below it is a space to aggregate information you select from various Web sources. On the right is a panel headed by icons from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Google, Flickr, and Storify itself. There is even an icon for breaking news.
Simply click on one of those icons you want to search, then type in the topic of “gun control” in the search window. Up pops the latest in tweets, posts, and uploads from around the social media (and, in the case of Google from traditional media) about gun control.
All in one place
As you scroll through the posts and find ones you like, just drag them over to your work space. You can refer to them as you are writing your story in the same panel. You can either paraphrase or quote them (attribute please!), or create links to them in your story.
Then you either save your work to return to it later for completion or, if you wrap up the story then, click to post it on Storify.
Voila! You’re an instant journalist.
Or are you?
Actually, if this is all the reporting you do on the story, you are more of a citizen journalist. That’s the term used to describe anyone with a computer or tablet who either finds themselves at the scene of a breaking news story and wants to tell others about it, or one who simply wants to comment online on that event or issue or person.
Like a blogger? Right. As in the case of this blog, there is a combination of your own observations, thoughts, and an aggregation of some other online observations.
Journalism, right? Hmmmm … in some ways, yes.
What’s missing? Something both academics and professional journalists would call original research, and something reporters would call knowing your sources well.
Going beyond the crowd
Interviewing and mining original documents are at the heart of journalistic research. To some degree, both can be done online, but there are problems. In doing an e-mail or chatroom interview for example, the body language and other nonverbals are missing. Even with Skype, things are stilted. Depending on the kind of interview you are conducting, those nonverbals can be very important in revealing details about the interviewee.
And as for mining documents, everything is not on the Web, especially if it is recent material such as crime or economic stats that have just been compiled, or if some agent hasn’t worked his or her way through their mountain of material to post it online.
The other obvious problem with online research — and this is especially true with crowd sourced data — is that you often don’t really know the person tweeting or posting it. You may have a name, but you don’t have the kinds of credentials journalists need to evaluate the information’s credibility.
When it works
To me, crowd sourcing works best if a writer is trying to tap into the conversation about a topic, rather than use those tweets or posts as the basis of fact for the topic. If reaction from everyday citizens is what a journalist is after, then crowd sourcing would seem to fit that bill as a means of getting it.
There are exceptions to this, yes. Experts do voice their observations online; WikiLeaks has brought many useful, original documents to reporters’ attention.
By and large, however, crowd sourcing is highly suspect as the main source of a reporter’s investigation. Reporters are asked to be more than untrained citizen journalists. They are asked to adhere to a set of reporting and editing standards that requires rigor and attention to accuracy and detail.
Achieving all that requires a lot more than putting out an open call for anyone with an opinion to chime in, or to simply browse through those tweets and posts and call that sourcing.