Crowdsourcing means many different things to different people. Much as citizen journalism is now used to refer to everything from eyewitness accounts to hyper-local startups launched by individuals, crowdsourcing has become conflated with other terms.
Some think all comments on stories are crowdsourcing. Others use the term for any user-generated content. Some regard crowdsourcing as synonymous with distributed reporting, collaborative journalism, networked journalism, participatory journalism, and social journalism. Still others regard the act of harvesting people’s comments or images from social media channels as crowdsourcing. To be sure, all of these phenomena share attributes.
Amanda Michel, The Guardian’s senior editor of strategy and partnerships, believes that the very language around crowdsourcing has shifted in response to changes in the way that the practice is viewed. “The term ‘citizen journalist’ was once used in a pejorative way . . . Language is contested and debated within journalism. I think that reflects more about the world of journalism than about what the words mean.” Though it may be prudent to, as Michel put it, “focus less on the language than the phenomenon,” we found it necessary to work with a more focused definition of crowdsourcing so as to better define and make sense of specific practices and typologies.
Our definition: Journalism crowdsourcing is the act of specifically inviting a group of people to participate in a reporting task—such as newsgathering, data collection, or analysis—through a targeted, open call for input; personal experiences; documents; or other contributions.
Though examples of inviting people to participate in reporting tasks date back well before the term crowdsourcing was coined, what sets crowdsourcing apart is the fact that it is fueled by web technologies. As many of our examples illustrate, crowdsourcing relies upon the role that the Internet and new digital tools have played in giving journalists and communities direct and ongoing access to one another.
The community, of course, is used for many purposes: from Yelp’s crowd-powered collection of reviews on everything from restaurants to doctors, to crowd labor platforms such as Mechanical Turk, and humanitarian projects like Ushahidi’s efforts to track relief efforts in the Haiti earthquake.
This study focuses on crowdsourcing activities that lead to news stories by professional reporters that appear online, on the air, or in print. Excluded are projects that involve comments after publication of a story and exchanges of information within a Facebook Group—unless these were active components of crowdsourcing to create the story. While we give a nod to sites like Reddit, they are at the margins of our focus. “I would see crowdsourcing as being something solicitous—sourced from the crowd,” said Sasha Koren, former New York Times deputy editor of interactive news. Added Sona Patel, The New York Times’s senior social strategy and UGC director:
Crowdsourcing is the means of getting information. UGC is how we display or present it. I like to think of crowdsourcing as us reaching out to readers in some directed way. Crowdsourcing is different than just mining information.
Using our definition, most crowdsourcing generally takes two forms:
An unstructured call-out, which is an open invitation to vote, email, call, or otherwise contact a journalist with information.
A structured call-out, which engages in targeted outreach asking people to respond to a specific request. Responses can enter into a newsroom via multiple channels; including email, SMS, a website, or Google form. Often, they are captured in a searchable database.