In Defense of Crowdsourcing: You Get Out What You Put Into It

Yesterday, Dashiell Bennett via Atlantic Wire* brought some pointing-and-laughing to the plight of  Darren Rovell, a CNBC sports business reporter who was burned by a source he found via crowdsourcing and then pouted publicly online about it.

Bennett, however, takes a leap that defies logic: He blames the act of crowdsourcing for this error. Blaming crowdsourcing for failed reporting is akin to blaming phones and email – it’s merely a method to find sources, the end result still requires actual work.

Last fall, Rovell asked his Twitter followers how the NBA lockout was affecting their businesses. He received a response from a man who claimed to be the head of an escort service catering to NBA players and fans who noted that his business was down 30%. After a few questions over email, Rovell added the source’s comments to his story. As it turns out, said source was a high schooler punking this reporter. (Wait, high schoolers watch CNBC???)

Here was Bennett’s break-down of what happened:

Rovell was done in by two classic journalism mistakes. The first, less obvious one, is that crowdsourcing is a lousy way to gather news. As Rovell himself suggests in his CNBC mea culpa… people will say almost anything if they think it might end up in print, and people you don’t know and never meet can’t really be trusted. It happens to lots of people, because it’s very tempting to rely on these kinds of tips. The information comes so easily, but it needs to be taken with twice the amount of salt. The second is a more traditional maxim: If a story is too good to check, it probably isn’t true.

Well, he’s right on one count: You really can’t trust information that you get from any source anywhere – via crowdsourcing or otherwise – so you have to do a little reporting and fact-checking on things like this. He is wrong, however, to suggest that this somehow proves that crowdsourcing in and of itself is a lousy practice for journalists. In actuality, crowdsourcing can be a very effective way to find sources, but it’s what you do with those sources that determines the outcome of the story.

Crowdsourcing wasn’t Rovell’s problem, failing to take a couple of extra steps to find out if this too-good-too-be-true source was for real was his problem. Had he even called this guy on the phone and asked a few key questions, the kid’s story would have likely fallen apart in a matter of minutes.

Not that Rovell helps his case by including this in his “apology”:

He duped me. Shame on me. I apologize to my readers.

As a result I will do fewer stories on the real life impact of big events which I do think the public enjoys.

There will always be people out there who want their 15 minutes of fame and not really care how they get there.

The lesson was not “I shouldn’t accept anonymous sources I interview over email at face value”, it was “I’m not talking to you people ever again.” Sigh.

Reporters should take his story to heart as a cautionary tale, it shouldn’t scare people off from crowdsourcing altogether. Instead, note these basic steps of verification for all hot tips you receive as a reporter:

1. Evaluate the credibility of the source

2. Follow up on the information with reporting – including interviewing the source

3. Evaluate the credibility of the information 

4. Corroborate the info you receive against other sources

5. Evaluate your options based on the info you have

 

Here are some resources that might help you find your own verification process:

 

* Yes, I realize that in merely responding to this opinion post,  I’m falling directly into Atlantic Wire’s trap (also known as Forbes and Gawker Media’s trap), but it has to be said.

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  • http://twitter.com/donw Don Whiteside™

    It was so awesome back before crowdsourcing and the internet and nobody ever got burned by a source or needed to question whether they were credible.

    • http://twitter.com/setheweinstein Seth W

      Right?! This isn’t a new concept. If you’re writing a news article, make sure it’s factual. It’s your JOB.