Crowdsourcing the truth2011-01-11
Crowdsourcing has become more and more common among businesses for everything from product and service ideas (MyStarbucks Idea, Dell’s IdeaStorm) to populating a stock photo service (iStockphoto) to finding a needle in a haystack (the SETI@Home project, searching satellite photos for the wreckage of Steve Fossett’s experimental plane). GoldCorp is still in business because it crowdsourced its hunt for a new gold vein. In the UK, the Guardian asked its readers to pore over documents to find instances of MPs misusing their expense accounts.
The new crowdsourcing project from NPR’s On the Media (OTM), however, is the first time I’ve seen crowdsourcing used to try to conduct an investigation aimed at uncovering the truth.
OTM has been reporting for a while on the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (S372), which passed the Senate with unanimous bipartisan support, then cleared the House of Representatives after a deal addressed last-minute concerns about the impact of the legislation on WikiLeaks. The revised legislation was sent back to the Senate for a what seemed to be a routine vote. However, the vote was derailed with one senator placed an anonymous, secret hold on the legislation.
I didn’t know there was such a thing as an anonymous, secret hold. I thought at first it must be a joke based on Animal House and the “double secret probation” Dean Wormer placed on Delta Tau Chi House. But no, sadly, it’s real.
(Details of the legislation and its current status are available from the Government Accountability Project.)
In an era of increased transparency and accountability, it seems counterintuitive for an elected representative to use such a cloak-and-dagger tactic, particularly to undermine the will of the entire legislative body. And OTM wants to know which senator is responsible. To that end, the show has set up a page on the OTM site dedicated to rallying its listeners to help reveal the culprit. According to the site…
On the Media, in conjunction with the Government Accountability Project, would like to, well, hold our government accountable. Below is a table containing the names, states, and contact information for the 87 Senators still serving that could have put the anonymous hold on this bill. Clicking on a Senator???s name will take you to the contact page on their website.
The difference between OTM’s effort and others—like the MP expense investigation, SETI@Home and the quest to locate Fossett’s remains—is that the source provided data for volunteers to study. In the whistleblower case, OTM is asking its listeners to pick up the phone, make a call and ask questions. Not send an email, a fax or a letter. Actually speak, on the record, with a knowledgable staffer. That is, OTM is asking listeners to become a corps of investigators.
The page also includes a link to an additional document providing tips for tracking down anonymous holds. This list of five tips is a primer for non-journalists doing the work of journalism on OTM’s behalf.
Crowdsourcing news isn’t a new concept. News radio stations have promoted their tip hotline numbers for decades. Crowdsourcing investigative journalism, however, may become a growing trend as the staffs of news organizations shrink and resources vanish. OTM’s approach is particularly instructive, since it’s focusing on a smoking out a single fact and providing a high level of guidance on how to go about it.
I expect we’ll see more of this from not only NPR, but mainstream news outlets that, like CNN’s iReport, have already embraced the basic concept of crowdsourcing. OTM deserves credit for its early adoption of a technique that creates a substantive link between professional and citizen journalists.
Listen to the OTM segment or read the transcript here.