Is Journalism Just Failed Crowdsourcing?

This provocative question materialized during a recent conversation I had with a Professor of Political Science whilst in New York in this week. Major news companies like CNN have started to crowdsource citizen generated news on the basis that “looking at the news from different angles gives us a deeper understanding of what’s going on.” CNN’s iReporter thus invites citizens to help shape the news “in order to paint a more complete picture of the news.”

This would imply that traditional journalism has provided a relatively incomplete picture of global events. So the question is, if crowdsourcing platforms had been available to journalists one hundred years ago, would they view these platforms as an exciting opportunity to get early leads on breaking stories? The common counter argument is: but crowdsourcing “opens the floodgates” of information and we simply can’t follow up on everything. Yes, but whoever said that every lead requires follow up?

Journalists are not always interested in following up on every lead that comes their way. They’ll select a few sources, interview them and then write up the story. What crowdsourcing citizen generated news does, however, is to provide them with many more leads to choose from. Isn’t this an ideal set up for a journalist? Instead of having to chase down leads across town, the leads come directly to them with names, phone numbers and email addresses.

Imagine that the field of journalism had started out using crowdsourcing platforms combined with investigative journalism. If these platforms were then outlawed for whatever reason, would investigative journalists be hindered in their ability to cover the news from different angles? Or would they still be able to paint an equally complete picture of the news?

Granted, one common criticism of citizen journalism is the lack of context they provide especially when using Twitter given the 140 characters restriction. But surely 140 characters are plenty for the purposes of a potential lead. And if a mountain of Tweets started to point to the same lead story, then a professional journalist could take advantage of this information when deciding whether or not to follow up.

Source: CoolThing

I also find the criticism against Twitter interesting coming from traditional journalists. In the early 1900s, large newspapers started hiring war correspondents “who used the new telegraph and expanding railways to move news faster to their newspapers.” However, the cost of sending telegrams forced reporters to develop a “new concise or ‘tight’ style of writing which became the standard for journalism through the next century.”

Today, the costs of hiring professional journalists means that a newspaper like the Herald (at the time),  is not going to send any modern Henry Stanley to find a certain Dr. Livingstone in Africa. And besides, if the Herald had global crowdsourcing platforms back in the 1870s, they may have instead used Twitter to crowdsource the coordinates of Dr. Livingstone.

This may imply that traditional journalism was primarily shaped by the constraint of technology at the time. In a teleological sense, then, crowdsourcing may simply by the next phase in the future of journalism.

Patrick Philippe Meier

8 responses to “Is Journalism Just Failed Crowdsourcing?

  1. Laurent Sauerwein (twitter: larrysa)

    It’s quite true that “they may have instead used Twitter to crowdsource the coordinates of Dr. Livingstone,” but SURELY journalism is just a little bit more than simply finding coordinates!

  2. Hey Patrick,

    I think you’re on to something with the parallels between journalism and crowdsouring. And I agree that journalism has been shaped by technology. That said, I don’t think that journalism is failed crowdsourcing. Warantless wiretapping and CIA black sites (not to mention Watergate) likely couldn’t have been uncovered by crowdsourcing alone. Just as crowdsourcing can do things that individual journalists can’t, journalists have many other tools in their toolbox than just crowdsourcing (online or off).

    Using new distribution tools, the Herald could probably get Dr. Livingstone to blog for them, but there’s still no guarantee that the guy could write.

    • Nice one! I love this: “Using new distribution tools, the Herald could probably get Dr. Livingstone to blog for them, but there’s still no guarantee that the guy could write.” Very well spotted, and great arguments all around. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Hmm isn’t the original crowdsourcing just gossip down the marketplace, at the village pump, at the swapmeet place for stone axe blanks

    important thing is how much you trust the gossiper and cross checking the tale before you pass it on

    isnt that bit the journalist’s job

    another analogy is military intelligence where clearly the main task is sorting the wheat from the chaff, the truth from misdirection and lies

    the best spies/scouts do that for you

    Can’t see how crowdsourcing can give you a story/explanation some human like brain needs to do that

    That Wired article on crowdsource journalism seems to be saying that too

    Artificial Intelligence is needed by so many applications

    • Thanks for your comment, Brian! You’re absolutely right, what I was trying to get at is that crowdsourcing leads (or yes, gossip) could be a time-saver for journalists. The latter would then cross-check the leads, etc, as I wrote in my blog post. Crowdsourcing can give the leads for a story, and can paint a story from different angles. Which Wired article are you referring to?

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