Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A sustainable model emerges: Use collective intelligence but fact-check with journalists

My quick note on sustainable journalism originally published in CCJIG's Spring 2009 newsletter:
A clichéd refrain of critics is that citizen journalists have little incentive to check for facts or fairness, or to even write well.

So is fact-checking on life support?

Consider the evidence. More and more citizen sites are hiring a professional journalist (or two or three) to edit members’ contributions. As citizen journalism matures, it seems to be increasingly turning into a method to investigate a story rather than a replacement for professional journalism.

Is that a challenge to the very premise of citizen journalism? Quite the contrary, it would seem. Take Julien Pain, founder-editor of the French cit-journalism site “Observers.” In recent media interviews, Mr. Pain says Web traffic has zoomed with the increase in perceived credibility. He says his site “takes advantage of the best aspects of a blog, but maintains professional direction.” Clearly, the site has realized enhanced value through edits by a professional.

Another example is Cynthia Farrar’s citizen journalism forum, whose tag line boasts, “People powered, professionally produced.” The site, “Purple States,” was described by one blogger as a “new media company that gathers content from citizen journalists like you, edits their videos and interviews, and delivers those packages to major media outlets.” Its teams comprise “citizen journalists. . . who travel together to report on news from the frontlines. Their journey is professionally. . . edited, and aired on a variety of major media platforms.” Purple States’ documentaries have been streamed on nyt.com, washingtonpost.com, Verizon v-cast as well as on local television.

That seems to be the emerging model: Employ a collective intelligence but fact-check using a professional. I predict it will emerge as the definition of “sustainable journalism,” a meme to explore which Leonard Witt recently got a $1.5 million gift. The model potentially enhances citizen journalism’s credibility but also creates avenues for laid-off journalists.

A citizen site that has bucked the trend is CNN’s “iReport,” which continues to declare that “the stories submitted by users are not edited, fact-checked or screened before they post.” iReport, which turned one year old February 15, has more than 25,000 reporter-members. Its virtual branch in Second Life – “our bigger, better space” as one iReporter gushed – is called iReport Island, the rapidly growing “network of 3-D citizen journalists.” iReports are also broadcast in CNN Radio feeds to “more than 1,500 affiliates in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand Aruba and Newfoundland.”

I expect that if citizen sites won’t fact-check, then others will do it for them – that is a fundamental reason why collective intelligence is a utility. For instance, check out Public-Press.org, Spot.us and Newsdesk.org. Clearly, this idea that others will do the fact-checking, has its own pitfalls given that Web users tend to frequent content which reinforces – not challenges – their attitudes. Mark Glaser of MediaShift once observed that Web traffic to non-partisan fact-check sites -- such as PolitiFact, FactCheck, and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog -- is always less than the Web traffic to partisan fact-check sites -- such as Newsbusters (conservative) and Media Matters (liberal).

Besides, consider what Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute writes in a recent Time. He calls for Web users to make a “micropayment” via some sort of EZPass system which he claims would, besides saving the newspaper industry, “nourish and encourage all sorts of citizen journalism and blogging.” A consensus seems to be developing that if citizen journalism is to have monetary value, fact-checking will be inevitable.

All of it leads me to offer that we don’t have to be particularly intrepid to appreciate the emerging model – “employ a collective intelligence but fact-check using a professional” – as worthy of our group’s careful attention.
Also see: Can selling news via the Web save newspapers?
And see:
Some thoughts on citizen journalism and Mumbai
How to add value to amateur content

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