Friday, November 24, 2006

The power of crowds

[Keyword: , , , ]. My latest Stirrer column looks at crowdsourcing. Here's the article in full:

The power of crowds

Some journalists are afraid of their readers. They refuse to publish an email address at the end of their article; the newspaper website does not list their phone number; and as for ‘citizen journalism’, well, we didn’t spend all that time learning shorthand only for Joe Bloggs to get in on the act with no more qualifications than a mobile phone.

Others, however, are starting to realise that their readers are the best weapon they have in tackling a story that would otherwise prove too tough a nut to crack.

Take Ben Goldacre, for instance. Ben writes a regular column in the Saturday Guardian entitled ‘Bad Science’, which looks at science-related stories in the week’s media – you know, the sort of stories that begin “A revolutionary drug-free dyslexia remedy has been hailed a wonder cure by experts”.

For a number of weeks Ben has been writing about Durham Council’s claims to have run a trial of a fish oil food supplement. Durham Council staff he wrote, were “appearing all over the papers and television in news stories to promote a pill called Eye Q made by Equazen, suggesting it is effective at improving concentration and learning in normal children, an assertion that is not supported by published trial data.”

Ben’s attempts to get hold of the trial information have proved unsuccessful – firstly his phonecalls and emails went unanswered, and then his request under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act was rejected on the grounds of cost.

So Ben decided to turn to his readers. Realising that a request for just two or three of the pieces of information he had requested should not be rejected on the grounds of cost, he asked his readers to make those, smaller, requests instead, with the intention of collecting the different pieces of information together afterwards.

The readers have responded in droves: at the time of writing there were 173 comments on Ben’s blog from people who have made the FOI request - and this in a world where most journalists wouldn’t know how to make an FOI request.

But this isn’t an isolated case. It’s called crowdsourcing, and in America newspaper publishers Gannett are already looking to integrate the process into their news operations after some particularly successful campaigns – including one investigation of a local authority’s excessive water connection fees where “retired engineers analyzed blueprints, accountants pored over balance sheets, and an inside whistle-blower leaked documents showing evidence of bid-rigging.”

In a world where the only investigative journalism involves rooting through the rubbish of celebrities, and where people are increasingly cynical of power and those who hold it – both politicians and journalists – crowdsourcing provides a spark of hope that perhaps the people still do have some power, and more importantly: they’re keen to exercise it.

Useful links:

BadScience >> Fish Oil
Something fishy?
Gannett to Crowdsource News

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Paul Bradshaw lectures on the Journalism degree at UCE Birmingham media department. He writes a number of blogs including the Online Journalism Blog, Interactive PR and Web and New Media


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