Jul 1 2009

Open-Source Journalism

New technologies bring citizens into the newsroom

On December 6, 2008, a 15-year-old in Athens was shot and killed by a police officer. The event sparked nationwide riots and protests, with news spreading rapidly through word of mouth and new media platforms like cell phones and Internet sites.

Meanwhile, reported Andrew Lam at New America Media (12/16/08), some 500 media professionals were gathered in Athens for the Global Forum for Media Development, discussing the future of media. They saw traditional media playing a marginal role in coverage of the breaking news, as unorganized citizen journalists reported continuously from on the ground. Greek columnist and TV commentator Pavlos Tsimas was quoted by Lam:

Thousands of people were in the street protesting the murder of a boy whose name they didn’t know. Established media have not yet reported the event. TV stations came in a little late. The next day the newspapers did not carry words of the event, with the exception of some sports papers that carried the story due to late-night printing.

Micro-blog site Twitter was one of the most prominent new media tools deployed by Greek activists and their supporters. Twitter has given millions of users a free platform from which to speak uncensored to the world in 140-character “tweets.” Through the Internet and cell phones, users are able to send and receive short text messages, which may be tagged so users can follow twittering on a particular subject.

As Ethan Zuckerman of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society noted in February (My Heart’s in Accra, 2/19/09), he was able to follow the developing coup in Madagascar—a story notably absent from traditional media—through the Madagascar tag on Twitter. As the coup unfolded, he wrote, Google News had paltry, delayed coverage, while the New York Times’ website lacked even a newswire story of the crisis, although the paper employed one the few U.S. reporters who paid any attention to the island nation. Zuckerman instead found breaking news originated primarily with Thierry Ratsizehena, a marketing and social media expert in Madagascar’s capital city, who updated his Twitter followers with the latest local television and radio news, as well as reports from other bloggers in Madagascar. His tweets were then translated and contextualized for an English-speaking audience by another Twitter user, Lova Rakatomalala.

Ten years ago, in a direct challenge to corporate media, activists launched the Independent Media Center to provide alternative coverage on the controversial World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle. The project, which centered on a news website whose content was fully generated by citizen journalists, now hosts news sites for cities across the world, and can perhaps be identified as the first large-scale experiment in open-source journalism. IndyMedia, according to its website, has grown to include more than 170 local sites on six continents, logging an estimated 500,000 to 2 million hits per day.

Internet technology made IndyMedia possible. Today, with emerging technologies like Twitter, citizen journalists around the globe are furthering IndyMedia’s original intentions of subverting corporate control over media production and making possible greater participation by non-traditional “reporters.” Twitter is still a relatively young and limited phenomenon; as of February 2009, there were only an estimated 7 million users in the U.S. But it is growing explosively, seeing a 1,382 percent year-to-year growth in unique visitors in February (Mashable, 3/16/09).

This real-time information sharing trend has not only created an alternative stream of media, it has created a large group of potential sources for journalists outside traditional official sources. CNN hosts iReport.com, a user-generated website where people may submit photos and video with brief commentary via email on computers or cellphones. CNN then surveys the site for possible news stories, which are subjected to the editing process before appearing on air. With the popularity of smart phones and other handheld devices that are capable of taking photos and video and uploading them to the Internet, the ability to report news has become more widespread, although it is still limited to those who can afford the technology.

The avalanche of unvetted information prompts legitimate concerns about accuracy. On May 15, Twitter was chirping with false news that California had overturned Proposition 8, referring to a Los Angeles Times article on California’s overturn of the gay marriage ban in May 2008 (5/17/08)—several months before the Prop 8 vote. This could be Exhibit A for the need for media professionals to fact-check information—except that the professionals at the L.A. Times turned around and put the misinformation out on its its own Twitter feed, in an apparent copy-and-paste error (L.A. Times, 5/15/09).

Critics also worry that new media generate an immense amount of raw information, presenting the problem of content without context. During the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Twitter users sent approximately 80 messages every five seconds, providing eyewitness updates as well as emergency contact information and compiling a list of the injured and dead (CNN, 11/28/08). As Alexander Wolfe of Information Week writes (11/29/08): “Amid the real-time video feeds (kudos to CNN International), cell phone pictures and tweets, we were able to keep abreast of what seemed to be happening, and where it was going down, all the while not really knowing those other key, canonical components of journalistic information gathering—namely, who or why.”

But as Wolfe acknowledges, the Indian government itself may not have had these answers. And NPR’s Andy Carvin (2/28/09) contends that during the Mumbai attacks—as well as the recent riots in Greece—while there was indeed a spread of false information, it was quickly followed by users’ epistemological inquiries:


And then people on Twitter and Facebook started asking: “Are you really sure about that? Did you see this yourself? Did you get this from a news source? Did you get this from a blog?” And so, in a way, a system of checks and balances kicks into high gear with people who are just innately very skeptical—wanting to get to the heart of a matter.


If it’s true that audiences of new media have a heightened sense of skepticism, that would be a welcome trend, offsetting an often naive trust in the information supplied by traditional media.

Veronica Cassidy is a freelance writer and former FAIR intern based in Brooklyn.