Is crowd-sourcing edging into mainstream journalism — or is it just an online survey?

How far did asking readers for their input help Jay Rayner with his Observer article on genetically modified foods, published last Sunday? He found it a mixed bag — and a lot more work, he says.

It involved digesting hundreds of emails and online comments, says Rayner, including 159 comments on the original request online — but:

In the end, although I didn’t set out to do it this way, almost every single research paper I consulted came via our call to arms, as did three of the four main interviewees (two from each side).

My impression is that this kind of crowd-sourcing has been edging more into mainstream journalism — but often in a different way from Rayner’s “exercise in open-source journalism” (as he calls it).

Take another current example: the BBC’s iPM asking for readers/listeners to flag up what element of their spending has been hit hardest by the ‘credit crunch’, which it’s plotting on a map. Similarly, the Times Online sought readers’ comments on its 2008 Budget Survey, plotting them on a Google mapAndy Dickinson helped out. This survey-style approach is automated, of course, and so can handle large numbers of responses — clearly essential when we’re talking about more than 22,000 responses, as with iPM.

There may be a trade-off. Go for as many responses as possible, with a narrow set of questions and possible responses (so it can be readily automated). A large response might make results more reliable and/or representative. But it’s still essentially a survey, even if it has the online equivalent of bells and whistles.

On the other hand, a Rayner-style invitation to contribute is more blog-like and open-ended — which means a human has to read and digest the responses. But a ‘click here’ survey wouldn’t get you research papers and interviewees.

In the end I suspect there’s a place for open-ended crowd-sourcing, surveys, and much in between. Including pointers that help to produce a scoop.

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