Taking cues from Citizen Science

One rap against citizen journalism is that there is always a possibility that it isn’t accurate or credible. Unmonitored, unmoderated blogs can get it wrong. Well, so can traditional journalists, but with blogs, it’s harder to hold someone accountable, and erroneous information is that much trickier to retract.

Would it help then, to look for ideas in a field where inaccuracy is barely tolerated, if at all? The media should be able to tap into crowd wisdom for credible content if, as Dan Schultz notes, “members of the scientific community, a professional group that arguably maintains higher standards for verification than journalism, are trying to harness the crowd in the same way that we are.”

Citizen science has been effectively used in one main way – collection of data, which is then used by scientists for contextualization, analysis and consolidation with experiments and previous scientific literature.

Be it recording the dates of Spring’s first lilac blossoms, or counting the number of eggs in bird nests, citizens are contributing in meaningful ways, so scientists can then then use this for more specialized tasks, like assessing the information thus obtained to study the impact of global warming or the influence of human activity on wildlife.

Perhaps, the closest counterpart to this use in journalism is something akin to WNYC’s crowdsourced project to track price gouging in New York City or the Shropshire Star’s map of fuel prices. In both these exercises, citizens were not expected to do much more than report their daily observations.

Since scientific research usually requires a high level of education and training, the tasks get divided neatly between professionals and dabblers. As Schultz points out, in the case of science, “professionals have bigger and better things to do; it doesn’t make sense for a PhD to use a million-dollar telescope to look at something that a hobbyist could view using a thousand-dollar one, especially when there is so much of the universe left to unlock.”

This is not to say that such a clear definition would not work for journalism. In fact, citizen journalism pioneer Jay Rosen has often said that division of labor is essential for crowdsourced journalism projects. In WNYC’s case, citizens were responsible for collecting information that was put together in a story. In more complex investigative projects, the public is given the task of perusing documents, as is happening with The Guardian’s investigation of the MP’s expenses scandal.

Another idea would be to outsource so-called “fluff” journalism to the public (self plug warning). Many sites are already implementing this, by allowing citizens to post blogs and articles on lifestyle and recreational topics. Schulz suggests hyperlocal content as one such department where citizens can often do a good, if not better, job than reporters.

One of the main problems is that unlike scientists, journalists–irrationally or not–are in constant fear of being replaced by amateurs. Hence, they seem more hesitant to solicit citizen help. The fact that journalists are losing jobs, however, has more to do with the lack of revenue-generating mechanisms on the Internet than it has to do with bloggers posting content online. In fact, by recruiting audiences to act as eyes and ears for news organizations, the latter would actually save costs and be able to divert resources toward more specialized reporting.

Secondly, in the case of scientific crowdsourcing or citizen science, there is a distinct classification of contributors and their scope of contribution–as identified by what professionals, amateurs and citizens can do. This leads to a clear division of labor, which is not quite possible in journalism, at least in the way it is being practiced right now. While there is no doubt that journalism needs a special set of skills and training, it’s not rocket science, quite literally.

Amateurs contribute toward citizen science in significant ways by performing unspecialized tasks. In the case of bloggers, on the other hand, short of traveling to a war zone (with some exceptions) they are pretty much doing–or attempting to do–what professional journalists routinely do.

The solution is not to curb bloggers and independent journalists, however. It is to produce the sort of in-depth, high-quality journalism that makes newsroom journalism “special.” In order to have clear-cut division of labor, professionals merely have to offer a product that makes use of the creativity and resources that are available to them. And in the process, they can implement projects that involve the lay public so the latter can do what they do best.

1 thought on “Taking cues from Citizen Science

  1. Pingback: Taking cues from Citizen Science | Online Journalism Blog | Citizen watch live today

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