It’s a grim argument against crowd sourcing

In case you don’t follow Clay Shirkey on Twitter, I noticed that he sent this tweet out, interestly, without comment:

cshirky “Many of Moore’s eye-witness tweets from Ft. Hood had no value whatsoever, except as entertainment and tragi-porn.”

Here is the article:  NSFW: After Fort Hood, another example of how ‘citizen journalists’ can’t handle the truth by Paul Carr. He also says in it:

Two weeks ago, I wrote here about how the ‘real time web’ is turning all of us into inhuman egotists. How we’re increasingly seeing people at the scene of major accidents grabbing their cellphones to capture the dramatic events and share them with their friends, rather than calling 911.

That reminded me of a traumatic moment I had at Grand Central the day a steam pipe burst, killing one driver and injuring dozens. The ground was shaking, the noise was tremendous, some people were running past me like startled deer….and there was a group of people standing in the street, shooting the swirling tower of steam with their cell phones. They were oblivious of the danger or fear around them. Knowing it was their first response within minutes of the event, it was an odd site. (However, thanks to one of them, I’m able to link to a scene of the event and give you more context!)

The level of protest like Carr’s is rising against news organizations working with everyday people who happen to be armed with recording equipment. Perhaps it’s partly motivated by journalists feeling a desire for job protection, but there is also truth to what Carr says. This is an important conversation for journalists to have now, especially if any of us want to use crowd source reporting for real, going forward.  It’s an evolving form of journalism, so it is important for us to help define it–on air, via twitter, etc.

I’d be curious to hear other journalists’ responses to Carr’s argument. My response? The tools are out there. The “reporting” is going to happen. Here is our opportunity to talk with potential amateur reporters about the real Elements of Journalism and empower them to respond to events with the genuine instincts of a reporter as explained in Rosensteil & Kovach’s book. I say invite them to work with us. Devote the time to  proper training, both passively through broadcast and directly through meet-ups and station or newsroom talks open to the public.

If you didn’t watch the video by This American Life at the end of Carr’s post, it’s too much to explain, but one troubling scene is when the school administration decides the best way to handle all this “reporting” by the students is to destroy their homemade cameras. Trying to dampen any person’s impulse to share the story of what they witness, I think, is a terrible idea, and one we have seen many governments select as the most effective and even “moral” option. I would prefer to spend my time encouraging more people to participate in the elements of life around them and arm them to properly use the social tools we now have. We are in an exciting time of civic life, where more information is perhaps the cause of more participation. That can’t be a bad thing.



Filed under journalism

3 responses to “It’s a grim argument against crowd sourcing

  1. DQ

    Most online communities (msg boards, comment sections, chatrooms, multiplayer games or what have you) self-educate. The older members school the newbies in its mores. But once a community is open and large enough, members self-select themselves into groups and stop encountering standard bearers. (For instance it took Wikipedia seven years to construct a muddled guideline on plagiarism, probably because in its earliest days it was presumed contributors were cognizant of it. Seven years later they found they had administrators who, in the kindest interpretation, had never heard of the concept.)

    How then does one hope to educate the general population about journalistic principles? Well, presuming it’s not hopeless, starting right now would be a good idea. One source of hope is that people who engage in, or are thrust into, citizen journalism are proud and excited and open to being told how to do it right, providing Shirky does not fill them with resentment and contempt first. In the meantime, coming down harder on established media using such material quickly and un-vetted seems more productive than going after an army employee on grounds of human decency.

    My impression is that the phenomena you encountered at Grand Central predates Web 2.0 by some distance. It was born when media outlets began buying VHS camcorder footage caught more or less accidentally.

    I’m not a journalist, but my response to Shirky’s piece is that it is a *bad* argument against crowd sourcing, and more, an overwrought objectionable one. Shirkey seeks to align, it seems to me, revulsion for what happened at Fort Hood with his own distaste for “social media” (and his apparent distaste for the phrase “shot in the balls”).

    I cannot see that a press photographer in that situation would not take the same photo as the woman he discusses. So will he make a moral argument against press photographers’ responses in situations?

    A note about the This American Life parable: In my school (and in yours, I’ll wager), fights rarely “broke out” beyond the first shove or push. They were arranged for a given time and place, and kids gathered in a circle to watch. Had we made cardboard cameras, as in the This American Life piece, we would no doubt have pointed them. The circle is present by the time the TAL storyteller observes it, suggesting he was out of this loop. It makes rather a less deep story explained this way. It’s certainly not a “terrifying” one. The cardboard cameras are the only thing, in fact, that deliver the story from the banal.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, DQ. Forgive me if I confused you on one point: the article was written by Paul Carr, not Shirkey, who simply tweeted it.

    I agree that now is the moment to start talking to news audiences about some of the basic tenets of journalism. Then journalists can expect to work more closely with those who genuinely want to report a story that is strengthened by the work of many.


  3. DQ

    Thank you, but of course you were quite clear! Apologies to Mr. Shirkey.

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