Back to top

The word "crowdsourcing" was first used in 2006 by writer Jeff Howe in an article he contributed to Wired. As Wikipedia haughtily explains, the term "is a portmanteau of 'crowd' and 'outsourcing.'"

But just what does that mean?

Wikipedia itself is possibly the most popular example of crowdsourcing . The concept of crowdsourcing involves organizing scores of people who are connected digitally to tackle a task. In Wikipedia’s case, the group creates an online encyclopedia. And while this may sound like a recipe for informational sloppy seconds, in 2005, the journal Nature compared articles about scientific topics published on Wikipedia to those found in the Encyclopedia Britannica. According to a BBC News article,  they "found few differences in accuracy."

Accuracy notwithstanding, one benefit a leather-bound volume of an encyclopedia does have over an online digital entry is its inherent immutability. Not so for Wikipedia. The digital pages of well-known politicians like Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi have been maliciously changed by their critics. And recently, a journalist was the victim of creative revisionism when his Wikipedia page was attacked in retaliation for something he wrote.

Rolling Stone contributor Matt Taibbi reveled in the death of conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart on a blog post nastily titled "Death of a Douche," writing, "So Andrew Breitbart is dead. Here’s what I have to say to that, and I’m sure Breitbart himself would have respected this reaction: Good! Fuck him. I couldn’t be happier that he’s dead." Soon after he had spewed out that bile, Taibbi's personal description on his Wikipedia page was amended to, “an American author and piece of excrement.” It was a literal war of words, as well as quite a chilling warning to any writer with the chutzpah to aggressively critique a subject.

On the upside, the rise of crowdsouring has been a real boon for aspiring journalists and photojournalists,. There are a number of sites on the web,, like Elance and oDesk for writers and iStock for photographers, that have substantially lowered the bar for entry into the journalism market. They give many more people than ever before an opportunity to develop their skills and produce a professional body of work. On the downside, the work they get isn't usually very glamorous, and the pay is typically meager.

While opening up the profession to more minds has been seen by some as a positive development linked to crowdsourcing, not all of the movement's results are commendable. One element of crowdsourcing that has major negative ethical implications is the use of video and images posted on social media sites by major news organizations.

For example, on the May 14 edition of NBC Nightly News, the program broadcast a story about the civil unrest currently happening in Syria. During the segment, NBC ran what they described as "amateur footage posted online which we couldn't independently verify showing burned out tanks in the aftermath of the attack." That would be like the New York Times writing that they knowingly published an article with unverified information they were told by a single source. In the legal world, it's called hearsay, and there's a reason it can't be used in court. However, running that kind of unchecked footage is a heck of a lot easier, and much less expensive, than hiring journalists to actually be on the ground covering a conflict.

A similar, and equally disturbing practice centered on crowdsourcing occurs when news organizations solicit help from their readers to mine large batches of information for scoops. The idea has a lot to do with the vital importance of speed to market of a brand's information in the digital world. If you aren't the first outlet to publish important breaking news, that can seriously impact your ability to show up in search engines, which is now a primary driver in how news is delivered and consumed. The dynamic is a recipe for shallow, skim-the-surface stories.

An excellent example of this occurred last June when a huge cache of Sarah Palin's emails from her time as governor of Alaska were released. An article on the Knight Digital Media Center 's site explained how the New York Times' handled the situation:

When 24,000 Sarah Palin emails are released this afternoon at 1 p.m. Eastern, news organizations will not only have teams of reporters sifting them for news and database specialists posting them online - outlets like the New York Times also hope for the help of hordes of readers to scour the massive data source.

The Times is asking its users to help “identify interesting and newsworthy e-mails, people and events that we may want to highlight.” No form has yet been posted on its web site, but the news outlet said it would be a simple one to allow readers to describe the nature of the email and then to share their own name and email addresses so they can get credit for their findings.

Could either a Palin supporter or detractor have wanted to participate in this crowdsourcing process in order to skew the Times' coverage in their ideological direction? Of course not. And why would the Times want to hire and pay enough qualified reporters and editors to do it themselves when they can compensate a horde of unqualified amateurs with their name in print?

It would be wrong to say that crowdsourcing has not been a partially beneficial new practice in digital journalism, especially when it comes to widening the funnel and allowing more voices to participate in the profession. However, crowdsourcing also has substantial downsides, most disturbing of which is its ability to help news organizations cut corners, which can be incredibly tempting in an age when if you don't publish first, you're basically dead last.

Add new comment

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.