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Published on September 20th, 2012 | by EJC


Crowdsourcing Journalism: Prospects And Pitfalls

Crowdsourcing and crowdsourced data are an essential and inescapable part of a journalist’s work today, this was the consensus among a panel of media experts speaking at the PICNIC festival in Amsterdam earlier this week.

“If you have no idea how to crowdsource or to use the social web to find content, information, stories… you’re frankly not doing your job properly as a  journalist”  – Matthew Eltringham, BBC UGC Hub.

The ‘death of journalism’ at the hands of social media and citizen journalists may be a popular catchphrase today, but the feeling among the panelists was that professional journalists would remain fundamental to society’s understanding of what is happening around it. “Traditional journalism is essential to the future of journalism,” said David Clinch, Editorial Director at Storyful .

While public participation and new technologies are now ingrained in the news gathering process, resulting in what Charlie Beckett, Director of Polis, refers to as ‘Network Journalism’, journalists provide added value in the form of contextualisation and analysis. Speaking on this issue during a recent interview New York Times writer David Carr expressed similar views, adding “somebody has to make the phone calls, somebody has to put in the shoe leather.”

 Charlie Beckett, Director of LSE Polis

 “Welcome to the age of uncertainty and complexity” – Charlie Beckett, LSE Polis

Crowdsourcing as a way of gathering information existed long before the internet, but the media has only recently come to recognise the possibilities and advantages it affords.
The BBC, through its User Generated Content (UGC) Hub, was one of the first organisations to do so. Executives were initially sceptical about whether it was worth pursuing, said Matthew Eltringham, who co-founded it in 2005, however shortly after a trial was launched, the 7/7 London Bombings took place and the BBC was flooded with videos and photos taken by people at the scenes. This marked a watershed moment for the BBC and the UGC Hub remains a permanent feature of its operations.

 Matthew Eltringham, Founding Editor at BBC’s User-Generated Content (UGC) Hub

“Verification is an art, not a science” – Matthew Eltringham, BBC UGC Hub

Crowdsourcing can help media companies to lower costs while expanding access to information and content. It is therefore surprising that small and medium sized media companies, with tight budgets and fewer staff, have been slower to make use of one of the largest and cheapest tools available. While some companies may simply be unaware of crowdsourcing as a journalistic tool, there is also the issue of verification.

David Clinch can attest to the difficulty of verifying the authenticity of user-generated content, he left CNN’s International Desk after more that 20 years to help launch Storyful, “the first news agency of the social media age.” In addition to curating stories and content from the web, Storyful provides a service to news companies: finding, verifying and ensuring access to content and information on the web. According to Clinch, verification is now more important than ever because of the unprecedented volume of content and real-time information available online. News organisations have a responsibility to ensure the accuracy of what they use “because if that line between reliable media and unreliable media is eroded any further then nobody will trust anything” he said. Verification is time consuming and often requires specialist knowledge, so it can be more difficult for smaller outlets, however, there are some simple tests listed on the Storyful website.

 David Clinch, Editorial Director at Storyful

Clinch also warns that, while crowdsourcing can be useful as a starting point for finding news and information, “it can also be a bit of an illusion.” He explains that journalists “need to find not just the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom in the crowd.”

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