Crowdsourcing: The Future For Journalism?

Has the time arrived for a press award for Crowdsourced journalism? The question would certainly make a few of my old university tutors squirm in their seats. Here’s the thing. What the heck is Crowdsourced journalism? And does it actually count as bona fide journalism?
Let’s deal with the first sub-question to start with. Robert Niles, a writer at the Online Journalism Review, defines Crowdsourced Journalism as:
“the use of a large group of readers to report a news story. It differs from traditional reporting in that the information collected is gathered not manually, by a reporter or team of reporters, but through some automated agent, such as a website.

Stripped to its core, though, it’s still just another way of reporting, one that will stand along the traditional ‘big three’ of interviews, observation and examining documents’.”

According to Guardian writer Mercedes Bunz, there are two very different ways of using Crowdsourcing in journalism. She says:

One is by an individual reporter during investigative reporting. The other is by the now-common Crowdsourcing by news organisations to gather as much information as possible about an event.

“Both turn traditional journalistic sense upside down.”

So in other words, it’s for the likes of you and me. On the one hand, we can participate in the research processes of stories, and contribute to the final pieces of work that media organisations produce. Such methods have been used successfully by the likes of the Guardian, during their investigation into the MP’s expenses scandal last year.

The other form of Crowdsourced journalism involves the news organisations such as CNN, who have got in on the act with their ireport website. The website actively encourages citizen journalists to upload their content onto the CNN website, which in turn provides CNN with ready-made access to instantaneous user generated content that could help them break stories from all over the world.

Crowdsourced content has the stigma of being used as a useful tool and contributory influence, rather than generators of fresh new content. Not so. Websites such as the Crowdsourced journalism site, NowPublic, are designed to consistently generate a constant flow of new stories every day of the week and deviate away from the news agenda of the traditional media.

The main difference between user-generated content and traditional reporting, however, is the primary function of the piece, video, picture or audio clip. Traditional journalists have to drudge through plenty of boring material as well as the good stuff- but if their audience demands such a story, there is a compulsion to deliver it.

Citizen journalists have the luxury of simply ignoring what they consider to be the rubbish, but this means that their content is written to like-minded people rather than a mass audience. Websites such as NowPublic therefore produce plenty of fresh content- but the content can be completely random, and the news-value questionable.

In which case, is Crowdsourced journalism an actual form of bona fide journalism? In newspaper journalism, sourcing the opinion of the readers has always been vital. If readers are not interested in the content, then newspapers are extremely unlikely to retain their circulation figures. ‘Letters to the Editor’ pages are effectively early forms of Crowdsourcing, a forum for readers to vent their anger, express gratitude etc and a chance for the papers themselves to gauge public opinion towards their content.

It’s only within the past decade or so that the newspaper’s readership has found its way onto the internet and a multi-platform has emerged. The internet has provided a more level playing field- the readers now have the same potential to access the technology that the media organisations use for themselves. We can all participate directly. The media now constantly scour websites such as Twitter for all sorts of research purposes- idle chit-chat, celebrity gossip, and the latest breaking news story to name but a few. And so can you.

Almost three years ago, Scott Karp, the author of Publishing 2.0, summarised perfectly the point that the media has, so-far, been reticent to accept. He said:

“So we have ‘serious, traditional’ journalism over HERE, and all this experimenting with ‘citizens” and ‘crowds’ and whatnot over THERE.

“Well, it’s time to call foul on this. NowPublic and other sites like it are doing JOURNALISM — the practice of journalism hasn’t been fundamentally changed so much as it has been extended. Journalism used to be linear. Now it’s networked. It used to be in the hands of a few. Now it’s in the hands of many more.”

Karp’s article is either prophetic, or demonstrates the continued reluctance of the journalism industry to fully embrace the interactivity of the digital age.

Two failed attempts by the highly respected British journalism industry magazine, the Press Gazette, to instigate an annual ‘Citizen Journalism Awards’ perhaps partly explains why traditional forms of the media are still reticent to recognise it as a contemporary rather than a rival. They list four reasons as to why their initial venture failed to catch on:

1) The ‘protectionist’ objection- Established journalists who take exception to the notion that a mere amateur could be referred to as a journalist by virtue of happenstance.

2) The ‘overbroad’ objection- The word ‘journalism’- the vast majority of the material produced by the journalist’s is often not intended as pieces of ‘journalism’

3) The ‘narrow’ objection- Citizen journalism encompasses more than simply what the big media journalists can exploit- e.g. referencing blogs and their comments or using photographs sent into them.

4) The ‘redundancy’ objection- If mass participation in journalism becomes the norm, the small group of people working as journalists full-time for money are increasingly the ones who need to modify their job title.

Online content does not have to dilute the overall quality of journalism out there- it can aid journalism in the most spectacular way. Imagine how the coverage of 9/11 may have looked like in 1991, 1981, 1971 etc rather than 2001? Eye witness statements are one thing- video content from people on the ground is quite another. Just like any form of journalism, there is a distinction between good and bad and we need to accept that there will always be variation in terms of the quality.

As for a press award for Crowdsourced journalism- why not? If it’s good journalism, why should we care what title is attached in front of it? Professionals will always remain a vital cog in the media machine for as long as there is a demand for new content. Maybe it is time for the mainstream media to openly recognise Crowdsourced journalism as a counterpart rather than a suspicious ignoramus.