The revolution of the World Wide Web, coupled with the rise of social media, has shaped the future of the journalism industry by changing the way journalists source stories. In the digital age where everyone owns a smart phone, citizens have the opportunity to share information, images and videos with news outlets in a matter of seconds. They become the reporter. The revolution of crowdsourcing, although nothing new, is transforming regular, everyday citizens from an unthinking herd into critically-thinking citizen journalists, who ultimately support and feed the journalism function.
So, what is crowdsourcing? In a 2006 Wired magazine article, Jeff Howe, professor of journalism at Northeastern University in the U.S. stated, “Crowdsourcing is the process by which the power of the many can be leveraged to accomplish feats that were once the province of a specialized few.” As the following video below illustrates, crowdsourcing is far from parvenue. In fact, the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary published in the 19th Century employed crowdsourcing to garner a list of commonly-used words to be included in the dictionary. Over a period spanning 70 years, six million contributions were made, highlighting an early, but significant form of crowdsourcing, just as we are witnessing today. Wikipedia is also another well known example of crowdsourcing.
As the video highlights, when it comes to crowdsourcing, the accuracy of material obtained is questionable. Queensland University of Technology journalism lecturer and media expert Susan Hetherington says crowdsourcing is “only as good as your crowd.” In the Online Journalism Review, journalist Robert Niles says in a true crowdsourced project, “information is not verified manually by a reporter between submission and publication, which inspires concern from many traditional reporters.” On the other hand, reporter Paul Lewis claims crowdsourcing means everyone is a potential news source, which expands the array of information available to the journalist and the news organisation.
“For the journalist, it means accepting that you can’t know everything, and allowing other people, through technology, to be your eyes and your ears. For members of the public, it can mean not just being passive consumers of news, but also co-producing news. I believe this can be a really empowering process. It an enable ordinary people to hold powerful organisations to account.”
You can watch his interesting and insightful presentation regarding crowdsourcing to a bunch of journalism students in full below:
Paul Brannan, editor of emerging platforms at the BBC, says the organisation has found “fantastic success” with crowdsourced content. “It’s lit up our journalism for the last five years. People offer us pictures every single day on the web, a call on Five 5 for people connected to specific events will get people coming back in spade loads,” he says. Similarly, Steve Buttry says old-school journalists should “embrace” crowdsourcing because they have always worked hard to find good sources in the community. “Crowdsourcing gives us more efficient techniques for finding sources,” Buttry says.
Further, in his book ‘Here Comes Everybody’, American writer Clay Shirky uses the phrase “the Internet runs on love” to describe the nature of crowdsourcing for journalists today. He points to four key steps, which are described below:
- Sharing – a sort of ‘me-first collaboration’, in which the social effects are aggregated after the fact. People share links, tags, pictures, and eventually come together around a type.
- Conversation – the synchronisation of people with each other and the coming together to learn more about something and to get better at it. It is also here we normally see the first formation of a community.
- Collaboration – a group forms under the purpose of some common effort. It requires a division of labor, and teamwork. It can often be characterized by people wanting to fix a failure, and is motivated by increasing accessibility.
- Collective action – the fate of the group as a whole becomes important. “We are experiencing an era where people like to produce and share just as much, if not more, than they like to consume. Since technology has made the producing and sharing possible, we will see a new era of participation that will lead to major change.”
According to dailycrowdsource.com, there are three predominant ways in which crowdsourcing is “pwining” journalism. Firstly, they suggest journalists are calling on citizens to help uncover breaking news stories, otherwise known as investigative work. For example, UK newspaper The Guardian used crowdsourcing to document the London riots. Secondly, journalists use the crowd for general information regarding a topic or subject that is relatable to their daily lives, often referred to as general observation. For example, many newspapers called upon society to email, Tweet or send in comments regarding the London Olympics to support, and add visual depth to their stories. Thirdly, journalists heavily rely on citizens or crowdsourcing to break completely new stories that are unbeknownst to the journalist. For example, when suicide bombers attacked the London Underground in 2005, trapped survivors captured videos of the aftermath on their smart phones. Journalist David Zax’s suggested crowdsourcing rules include know your audience, know your brand and crowdsource “organically”.
In sum, it is evident that crowdsourcing or crowdsourced journalism is becoming a more prevalent part of the journalism industry, as we see citizens play an increasingly important role in the sourcing, capturing and producing of news. However, it must be kept in mind that your source or information is only as good as your crowd. It is apparent that citizens and society in general play a crucial role in breaking, developing and assisting the production of news stories today, and this role will become all the more important in the future.