Crowdsourcing in Journalism

“Crowdsourcing”, which is a portmanteau of the words “crowd” and “outsourcing”, refers to obtaining ideas, content, or funds (the latter of which is known as “crowdfunding”) by requesting contributions from large group of people, often from an online community. Crowdsourcing has a lot of practical applications, including astronomy, project funding, agriculture, gene research, and especially journalism.

In journalism, particularly investigative journalism, crowdsourcing can be used to gather information from a large group of participants to be used in articles. The people who make up that crowd can be eyewitnesses to a groundbreaking event, or simply those that are knowledgeable on a certain topic. In the journalism world, crowdsourcing is gaining popularity, especially following the Denver Post being awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for its coverage of the 2012 Aurora, Colorado theater shooting. Its coverage of the story was heavily founded on the crowdsourcing journalism platform, Storify, which allows journalists to make use of information posted on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr to use for the article they choose to write. Another way crowdsourcing is applied to the field of journalism is image sourcing, in which any normal civilian with a mobile device capable of taking photos or video on their person can provide user-taken photos or videos taken in real time to aid reporters covering a breaking news story. The Scoopshot app is a leader in this area, allowing photographers with a smartphone or tablet to sell their photos to top news organizations. Journalists can also turn to crowdfunding platforms such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter to solicit donations from the public in order to fund a specific, intensive investigation.

Crowdsourcing in journalism is not without its challenges. Journalists who solicit information from other people must fact check the information and use it in a non-biased way. This is especially difficult in times of a crisis, as was the case in the 2013 Boston Bombings when a photo taken on an iPhone by a witness provided a clear image of one of the suspects, but also led to two innocent men being falsely accused. The pressure of finding a mass killer being time sensitive can severely impact the accuracy of crowdsourced information since investigators are less likely to fact check and more likely to try to race against the clock. In addition, while crowdsourcing is an effective tool in investigations, it should not be the only tool. One of the reasons behind this is that some contributions from the public are often of insufficient quality, and sifting through low quality submissions can be time consuming. Also, lack of financial incentives or participants can cause the project to fail, the former being an ethical concern as crowdworkers often receive insufficient pay due to them being treated as independent contractors.

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