Crowdsourcing and Ambient Journalism


While journalists have historically worked in a more solitary fashion, this is becoming less so the case today. Journalists are now more likely to work within teams in their organization, participate in collaborations across organizations, and involve their audiences in different aspects of news production.

This latter development — the incorporation of active audiences — is largely the result of new communication technologies and platforms that make it easier for audiences to engage with each other and with journalists. However, it is also the product of cultural changes and economic imperatives that have made audience participation appear more beneficial to — and in some cases necessary for — the production of ‘good’ journalism. Moreover, in addition to inviting contributions from audiences, new kinds of journalists have emerged whose job it is to tap into, and synthesize, the collective wisdom of the general public by monitoring their exchanges.

Journalistic Crowdsourcing

Within the context of journalism, the term crowdsourcing refers to a practice by which the cultural (i.e., knowledge), social (i.e., networks), or economic (i.e., money) capital of some public is harnessed for a specific task in the news production process.

Here, ‘crowd’ refers not only to the audiences of a given journalistic outlet but to the broader public they can reach via multiple communication channels, such as Twitter, Facebook, or even their own media products. ‘Sourcing,’ in turn, refers to the practice of collecting the resources (such as knowledge, material, or money) needed to advance an organizational or news production task. Journalistic crowdsourcing can thus involve the participation of non-journalists in identifying news, gathering news information, verifying and making sense of the gathered information, and distributing the produced form of that information. In the case of its sister act, crowdfunding, it can involve soliciting ad-hoc contributions to support a particular news production task, story, or project.

There are many reasons why a journalistic outlet might want to engage in crowdsourcing. For example, they may have access to more material than their reporting team can process, as is the case with large leaks of private documents or when governments aim to hide embarrassing information by overloading journalists with materials following a public information request. In this sense, crowdsourcing can be a free form of labor. Alternatively, journalistic outlets may believe that having more eyes will reduce mistakes and perhaps help their reporters identify important things that they missed. In this sense, crowdsourcing can be a way to improve traditional journalism. Or, journalistic outlets may find that they can build a following and increase brand loyalty by making audiences feel like they’re part of a team. In this sense, crowdsourcing can be a way to make journalism more sustainable.

For participants, the reward is often non-monetary since journalistic outlets rarely ever pay or reimburse participants for their labor. Instead, the reward is usually symbolic, such as by receiving some form of recognition for the work. This might be something as small as an icon or ‘badge’ next to their username on the website. It may also be more intrinsic, such as a feeling of satisfaction from having contributed to a social good or addressed a social problem. Sometimes, participants simply believe they’ve gained a skill or knowledge as a result of their participation.

Crowdsourcing can go very wrong, however. For example, shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing, online crowds on Reddit pored through pictures of the event to identify the perpetrators. They eventually zeroed in on two men and published photos of them that supposedly offered proof that they were the bombers. The New York Post famously took one of those pictures, enlarged it to cover its entire front page, and suggested that those two men were responsible for the bombing. It soon became evident that those men were not the bombers. However, by that point, their names had become public, their reputation had been tarnished, and they began receiving online and offline abuse. That abuse did not go away even after the actual perpetrators of the bombing were charged and convicted.

Kinds of Participation

The majority of crowdsourcing efforts to date have sought to incorporate audiences into the formative stages of news production, such as when stories are being identified, basic information is collected, and collected information is verified. Sometimes, journalists will solicit audience help for disseminating stories, in order to increase its reach. However, audiences rarely ever have a chance to participate in the editing stages — though it is theoretically possible for them to do so.

Scholars have identified five kinds of crowdsourcing activities that are designed to help non-journalists share their individual knowledge to create a form of collective knowledge. The first kind is voting, wherein the crowd helps prioritize the stories that reporters should tackle or flags phenomena of interest. The second is witnessing, or the sharing of first-person accounts of what happened during a breaking event. The third is sharing personal experiences, or the conveyance of experiential knowledge to reporters. The fourth is offering specialized expertise, wherein members of the crowd are able to contribute expert knowledge drawn from their professional experience or hobby. The fifth is completing a task, where the support comes by way of volunteering time to engage in semi-structured (and sometimes menial) efforts, such as sorting documents, cleaning datasets, or flagging information that may be of journalistic interest.

One of the first major examples of news organizations engaging in large-scale crowdsourcing occurred when The Guardian, a newspaper based in the United Kingdom, published 700,000 pages of information related to an information request about the expenses paid by members of the British Parliament. They asked members of the public to read through those pages and flag information of interest, such as overly expensive dinners or the use of government funds to pay for seemingly personal expenses (e.g., a mortgage). The Guardian created a website that would randomly assign a document in their trove to a visitor. That visitor could then flag particular pages from the document and note why they thought it was interesting. Each document would be reviewed by multiple people, and the system would average out the scores to surface the most flagged documents and pages to the professional journalists. The Guardian got more than 20,000 people to look through the expenses, and they were able to cover 170,000 pages within the first four days alone. Participants received no reward beyond feeling like they were part of something bigger. If they were particularly involved, they also received some symbolic resources by having their username appear on a leader board appearing on The Guardian’s website. (The Guardian thus gamified the experience to increase participation.)

Ambient Journalism

The ability, and willingness, of crowds to participate in journalism has also helped spawn new kinds of journalism. An example of this is ambient journalism, or journalism that is produced, distributed, and received continuously via new communications technology, such as social media and microblogging, and within which the journalist serves as the clearinghouse for crowdsourced information.

Ambient journalism is different from traditional forms of journalism because it is both more fragmented in nature and it requires audience participation. It is fragmented in that news is typically — though not necessarily — presented in small bites, as with tweets. It requires audience participation because ambient journalism focuses on gathering news information from the streams of collective intelligence made available through social media platforms. The journalist’s primary functions within this form of journalism are to actively monitor networked media (e.g., Twitter) for newsworthy information, triangulate and verify that information with the help of other actors using those media (e.g., other Twitter users), and serve as an authoritative source of information within that platform. It is thus a particular approach to crowdsourcing journalism.

To illustrate the value of ambient journalism, consider the case of Andy Carvin’s coverage of the revolutions in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt in 2011. Few Western journalistic outlets had people on the ground in those countries during the initial stages of their revolutions. Moreover, it quickly became difficult to report from those places as governments cracked down on reporters and restricted outside communication. Some of the foreign correspondents who were able to report on-site also did not fully understand the many facets underlying the anti-government movements.

Andy Carvin, who was then a digital media strategist at National Public Radio — so not even a foreign correspondent himself — quickly noticed that there were a lot of people in those countries who were tweeting about their experiences and capturing video of what was going on. Instead of hoping that NPR could dispatch journalists to those countries (and hoping that those journalists could find their way to the right places at the right times to capture breaking news), Carvin opted to tap into the collective intelligence of the citizens of those places.

Carvin recognized that the majority of the people tweeting information about those revolutions were either anti-government activists or pro-government activists. Put another way, the would-be sources had a stake in the issue and evident biases. However, what Carvin realized is that there were so many people in the network that he could work with them to triangulate the information he was seeing. If he saw video about government forces attacking protesters in a particular city block, he could ask others to share videos from different angles or even ask people to visit that block and capture additional video of the aftermath. If he did not understand what was being said by a source — or whether it was coded speech — he could ask the Libyans, Tunisians, and Egyptians on the network to translate or contextualize that speech. As sources demonstrated their reliability, Carvin would return to them.

Carvin’s work earned him a huge online following during those revolutions. He was seen as a reliable and trustworthy clearinghouse for information during a tumultuous and confusing event. Amid a constant stream of information, audiences could have confidence that the material he was putting out there was either verified or reliable, or clearly qualified as unvetted information. Moreover, journalists working for other outlets also kept a close eye on Carvin’s Twitter feed, following his lead as he helped break information.

Carvin later left NPR and started his own journalistic outlet that existed primarily on social media. Similar efforts have followed. Some of these are comprised of larger teams covering international affairs, such as Bellingcat. Others are led by individuals who cover smaller communities and local issues. As such, ambient journalism and crowdsourced journalism have become distinct forms of journalism that help unite contributions by journalists and their publics.

Key Takeaways

  • Journalistic crowdsourcing refers to a practice by which the cultural, social, or economic capital of some public is harnessed for a specific task in the news production process. It often comes as a direct benefit to journalistic outlets, with participants typically receiving only symbolic rewards.

  • Journalistic crowdsourcing can involve the participation of non-journalists in identifying news, gathering news information, verifying and making sense of the gathered information, and distributing the produced form of that information.

  • Ambient journalism refers to journalism that is produced, distributed, and received continuously via new communications technology, such as social media and microblogging, and within which the journalist serves as the clearinghouse for crowdsourced information. It has been used by journalists to cover developments from local protests to international affairs.