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Viewpoint: Crowd-sourcing bias

By Jesse Klein, Assistant Editorial Page Editor
Published December 5, 2012

On Dec. 5, John Bracken, founder of the Knight News Challenge, heard pitches by environmental journalism students in North Quad as part of the class's Pitchfest event. The Knight Foundation works to engage communities and foster journalistic innovation.

The pitches I heard while attending this conference focused on engaging consumers with news by allowing them to respond as reporters. Two groups pitched ideas for a web site and smart phone application combination that would allow readers to search for specific topics, organize their web pages with desirable information and upload their own videos, pictures or articles for communal benefit. The idea was meant to directly employ the reader and make use of the instantaneous nature of the Internet to compile news from every possible source. They wanted average citizens to be responding to and creating their own news reports.

Newspapers are dying. None of the ideas I heard talked about print articles — it was all about the Internet. It was about engaging readers online, not with a physical paper. The Knight Foundation asks for innovation because new ideas are needed to keep the newspaper industry alive. When news is so freely and abundantly accessible online, it’s difficult for pricey print publications to compete.

However, everyone knows the inherent risks of online news — namely, the limited means we have to check the credibility of a news article. People trust The New York Times or The Washington Post as valid sources for national and economic news, but only trust Yahoo News when it comes to Kate Middleton’s pregnancy. High-ranking papers are trusted to have good reporters, strong fact-checkers and careful editing. Citizen uploads are not, which is why forums like Reddit are purposed for entertainment, not as news sources.

On-the-spot video and photo reader uploads are priceless and informative during a natural disaster; however, this could easily be abused in day-to-day life, decreasing the credibility of the website. As a journalist, of course I want newspapers — whether online or print — to survive, but I don’t think crowd-sourcing reporting is the way to keep readers interested.

Readers like to be part of the conversation. Comments sections and letters to the editor prove the desire for readers to have a voice in their news, but these submissions are often either biased or downright false.

One of the judges for the Knight News Challenge, Steve Dorsey, vice president of research and development at the Detroit Media Partnership, said “it is frustrating that (The New York Times) reporters can’t respond to (online) comments that are false.” Newspaper policy often forbids reporters from chiming in the comments section, meaning a lot of what you see in comments could be misleading or downright false.

By using citizen uploads as their primary news source, the reader will be engaged, but not as well informed. The pieces aren’t properly edited or provided by someone trained in journalism. While this doesn’t necessarily mean their reporting is misrepresenting facts, it does mean that I, along with others, have less faith in it.

Newspapers are the place people go to become informed by an unbiased teacher on important issues. While it’s foolish to think that any news story is completely unbiased, editors and writers make a concerted effort to maintain objectivity. Citizen uploads don’t receive the same professional scrutiny. Soon, there may be no resource for people to educate themselves and make their own opinions because no article will be trusted to be presenting the truth. And that will be the final nail in the newspaper’s coffin.

Jesse Klein is an LSA sophomore.


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