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Feb 9, 2009

CLIP Crowdsourcing the US Senate Stimulus Bill

Posted by Emma Heald on February 9, 2009 at 11:01 AM
The Huffington Post is experimenting with a technique know as 'crowdsourcing' to report on the lengthy but highly significant US Senate stimulus bill, and the differences between the original bill and the 'compromise' which was recently made available online.

The two documents total nearly 1400 pages and are dense, complex reading - too much for one journalist alone, believesHuffPost. Instead, the website has appealed to its readers to go through the two bills and point out "any significant differences," particularly "any examples of wasteful spending or corporate giveaways that aren't stimulative." Readers who sign up are sent an email from HuffPost which gives them an assigned portion of the bill: about a fifth, according to theColumbia Journalim Review, along with instructions. 
At least 367 people responded to HuffPost's appeal, posted online by senior congressional reporter Ryan Grim on January 24, and readers' efforts "led to hundreds of tips to Grim and his fellow reporters, in the form of individual emails and of comments on the HuffPost's article pages," reported CJR. "We have readers who are highly intelligent, a lot of them are highly accomplished," according to Grim. And HuffPost's coordinator for distributed reporting Matt Palevsky noted that this technique of using readers' skills was particularly effective when dealing with something so crucial for the American public: "people want to see these things come to light."

HuffPost founder Arianna Huffington has expressed enthusiasm for this kind on reporting, not just for legislative analysis: "We are doing it across all the verticals, and we are finding that every day, there are more and more opportunities to use the wisdom of the crowd, to use our community--which is so large and active at the moment--to report stories." HuffPostalready used citizen journalism extensively during the 2008 US presidential campaign with its OffTheBus initiative. 

This kind of reporting leads to a distinct change in the reporter-reader relationship, turning it into a "two-way street," as Huffington described it. And although it can be argued that this has been happening for many years to some degree, as readers or viewers frequently offer tips to newspapers or TV news shows, inviting reader participation on this scale is new, and will not be welcomed by everyone. An obvious problem is that readers do not have any accountability to the publication, and no professional training. The New York Times's congressional correspondent David Herszenhorn asserted that reading through the bill was definitely his job, "I'm supposed to do that for the readers, not the other way round... We are not going to count on them to do the scrutiny of the bill." Several NYT reporters are sharing the work of going through the bill.

As long as readers' findings and observations are checked, however, the issue of accountability is less relevant. If their input is edited and combined with professional, accountable expertise from journalists, then crowdsourcing can indeed be a time- and resources-efficient way to work on projects which are too large for individual reporters, and could add valuable content.

Source: Columbia Journalism Review

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