Completing a Task
At times, news organizations need help performing specific journalism jobs that they don’t have the resources to do themselves, so they issue call-outs to volunteers. ProPublica, for instance, tasked citizens with poring over records of campaign advertising in its notable Free the Files project, and it asked for volunteers to call all 535 members of Congress to help report who was getting free Superbowl perks.39
D. Brian Burghart built his FatalEncounters.org database with more than 8,800 cases of “people killed during interactions with law enforcement” by calling for volunteers to submit incidents and verifying those and others with web research and public records requests. Australia’s ABC runs ABC Open,40 an example of a traditional news organization thinking creatively about using crowdsourced methods to reach previously untapped communities. ABC Open is a participatory media project that sends over 45 producers out to hold digital-skills workshops for rural Australians. The intent of the initiative is to provide Australians outside metro areas with an opportunity to tell stories. ABC Open encourages them to contribute stories to its website with periodic story prompts. Since 2010, about 12,000 people have shared some 80,000 submissions.
In ABC’s news division, an interactive team led by Matt Liddy collected a year’s worth of a metadata from the phone of an ABC reporter and tasked its audience with uncovering insights by exploring the data. The high-bar effort, intended to show audience members how phone metadata can tell stories, resulted in over 400 people sifting through the data themselves and writing to ABC News with their findings.41
Still, the journalistic leader in tasking volunteers with crowdsourced requests has been The Guardian. Since 2009, it has tapped into the power of its audience base, expertly finding ways to work collaboratively with its large and active audience. As time has passed, The Guardian has learned how to target specific communities with clear asks, while simultaneously broadening the types of answers it is open to receiving. The result is a seamless, back-and-forth interaction that benefits all parties.
Case Study—The Guardian
In 2009, The Guardian established itself as a frontrunner in crowdsourced journalism with its famous MPs’ expenses experiment: the organization created a searchable database of thousands of MPs’ spending receipts and asked the public to help mine the dataset for interesting information.
The experiment was a resounding success. Over 20,000 volunteers searched more than 170,000 documents, setting a new standard for the potential of crowdsourced journalism to produce high audience engagement and tangible journalistic outcomes.
In the six years since, crowdsourcing has become an integral part of The Guardian’s strategy, said Oliver Laughland, senior reporter at The Guardian U.S. “The journalists who work here have [crowdsourcing] ingrained in their consciousness. We’re always trying to think about ways in which you can engage with the audience and make them part of it.”
The Guardian’s latest effort, The Counted, exemplifies this.42 The Counted is an attempt to track the number of people killed by police and law enforcement agencies in the United States. It aims to provide a database that is currently at the center of national attention due to recent high-profile citizen deaths at the hands of police and security officers.
For The Counted, Laughland said the role of the audience was even more crucial than usual. “We knew The Counted wouldn’t work without it.” The Counted lives at the intersection of crowdsourced data collection and traditional reporting methods. In many cases, the team starts with data reported by members of the community, then gives that data to reporters to verify and extend. Occasionally the situation is reversed: a journalist will call up local police departments or medical examiners to create a data point that is updated as more information comes in from the crowd.
The result is that The Counted includes a number of stories that are outside the reach of both smaller and larger news organizations, and the campaign has the resources to report on stories that otherwise would have fallen through the cracks. “From a traditional reporting perspective, you can report on cases that haven’t captured national attention before,” Laughland said, citing five or six deaths that had not yet been reported.
Mary Hamilton, audience editor at The Guardian U.S., said these stories are told primarily by reaching out to specific, interested communities rather than the organization’s general audience. As a result, journalists’ existing ties to community networks were instrumental for initially spreading the word.
The team also has a distributed email list with semi-regular updates, and a project Facebook page and Twitter account that share news on police killings and make appeals for information on specific cases. All of these accounts feed into the interactive,43 where the team has been meticulous about the tone and language they use. “Join our community” is the phrase they’ve adopted precisely for its emphasis on inclusion and action.
Keeping momentum going during a year-long effort is daunting, but Hamilton credits two factors for the team’s ability to continually engage its audience: regularly adding new content (in the form of updates to the email list, Facebook page, Twitter account, and online interactive) and an element of reward.
Every single tip the team receives is viewed, counted as significant, and responded to, Hamilton said. “You can’t have a meaningful, long-lasting crowdsourced project without this type of acknowledgement.”
The Counted was also designed to support multiple entry points through which community members can engage and submit information. Hamilton noted that different mediums yield different types of information. On Twitter, the team is more likely to receive links. The Facebook page generates a mix of submissions: community members have more space to talk about leads they might have or to engage in conversation with other world-be contributors.
Hamilton said the most meaningful information often comes from the Tips Form on The Guardian’s website. It is here that family members or members of the deceased’s legal team will provide fleshed-out stories and accounts. Submissions through the Tips Form have been so well detailed that they have led, on occasion, to published Op-Eds on The Guardian’s main site.
Users usually travel across the different platforms before eventually settling on one. “They tend to gravitate to whatever they’re most comfortable with,” Hamilton said.
As of September 2015, The Counted has reported over 837 people killed by U.S. law enforcement agencies, with many of those cases reported entirely because of the project’s crowdsourced element. As Hamilton said, “Our readers collectively can scour far more than we can. They’re fantastic at holding us to account and making sure that our reporting is accurate.”
But there are costs. “This takes resources,” she noted:
This is a significant amount of work for my team . . . It’s at least two hours a day every day, including weekends—all the moderating, going through submissions, responding. The journalism has to be updated, has to continue to live after the launch point. The community engagement part is work, just as much as writing the story in response to the community engagement is. Resourcing that carefully is hugely important, and that work is often invisible.
One of the major takeaways is that successful crowdsourcing demands work, time, and effort. “Crowdsourcing and engagement aren’t an afterthought,” Hamilton said. “You don’t build the journalism and then decide how you’re going to do an engagement effort. You have to plan it from the start. It’s not the icing. It has to be baked in.”