Reporters used to have little choice but to ask fellow reporters, friends or advocacy groups for good examples to highlight issues in their work. Thanks to the Internet, that’s no longer the case.
Journalists now can crowdsource information, anecdotes, insights and real-life data on situations, which help to bring to life concepts that could otherwise seem abstract or hard to understand.
Jan Schaffer, founder and executive director of J-Lab and fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, explains that crowdsourcing is a way to gather information in a precise, targeted way to help fill in the gaps.
The Tow Center last week released a guide on crowdsourcing and took great pains to provide a definition for the concept. Schaffer write the guide with Mimi Onuoha, a Fulbright-National Geographic fellow and data specialist, and Jeanne Pinder, founder of ClearHealthCosts.com, which crowdsources medical costs.
Crowdsourcing, from a journalistic standpoint, is “the act of specifically inviting a group of people to participate in a reporting task,” Schaffer said. “That can be a newsgathering task; a data collection task, an analysis. It has to be through a targeted open call, a solicitation for input.” It’s not just harvesting information from social media or picking out specific notes from the comment section of related articles, but something a little more precise.
There are unstructured call-outs, like the open invitation to readers to share their stories in the comment section of articles or voting on a handful of options to help a reporter determine a follow-up piece. Structured call-outs are more specific and ask readers or listeners to provide information on a specific topic. Pro Publica, for example, has recently embarked on a project detailing the difficulties facing Vietnam Veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange when they try to get medical treatment. “They so target the Agent Orange community, they’ll go on the websites of ships where these veterans served around Vietnam and tap into the community that way,” Schaffer said.
This kind of research wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago. “I think that it’s really the creative web technologies that have emerged, and the Internet, that has allowed crowdsourcing to take off,” Schaffer said. “Now you can really keep track all along the way of how you reach out to your audience, how do you organize what they give you, how do you maintain contact with them. A key part of crowdsourcing is not just taking what they have to offer and saying thank you very much; it’s continuing a two-way conversation so you build that community and you tease out more contributions, so people give you stuff.”
On this week’s It’s All Journalism, producers Michael O’Connell and Amber Healy talk to Jan Schaffer, founder and executive director of the J-Lab, about a new crowdsourcing guide she helped write with Mimi Onuoha, a Fulbright-National Geographic fellow and data specialist, and Jeanne Pinder, founder of ClearHealthCosts.com, which crowdsources medical costs for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.
— Amber Healy