We stand on guard

Blogs + news = citizen reporters

I’ve been predicting this for some time. In South Korea, there’s a new site called OhMyNews.com — where everyday citizens contribute news stories they encounter in their daily travels. It has a readership of 1.2 million per day, which makes it bigger than virtually every U.S. newspaper, and 26,300 citizens registered as regular reporters. It is now so popular that South Korea’s new president Roh Moo-hyun granted his first interview to Ohmynews.com after being inaugerated in February. As SFgate.com reports:

“With Ohmynews, we wanted to say goodbye to 20th century journalism where people only saw things through the eyes of the mainstream, conservative media,” said its editor and founder, Oh Yeon-ho.

“Our main concept is every citizen can be a reporter. We put everything out there and people judge the truth for themselves.”

I love this. As a journalist myself, one of my biggest complaints about media is that editors — and too many reporters — have no idea what’s really going on in the world. We’re locked to our desks all day long, and in the evening we socialize solely with friends and associates from virtually identical social-class and educational backgrounds (putting us usually in the top-10-per-cent elites of our countries, if not higher). This is why, in the U.S., our news is regularly suffused with stories that would seem to prey solely and exclusively upon the psyches of well-off urbanites in Manhattan: The dire nanny shortage, the difficulty of juggling a law career with dating, the agony of Stephen Glass. That’s because we well-off urbanites in Manhattan are producing a stunning amount of the nation’s media, and we live in what amounts to a parallel quantum universe that bears almost no resemblance to life in the rest of the nation. I admit that some reporters sometimes get out in the field to report on stories, but not as many as you’d think; and the editors are essentially chained to their desks, so they’re forced to believe that the stuff that gets reported in the Wall St. Journal and the New York Times is really all that’s happening. Every time I read another story about The Matrix, and the writer talks about how wildly sci-fi dystopic it is — a world where everyone is deluded into believing the illusion around them is actually real!! Dig it!! — I think, well, yeah, that’s pretty much the world of New York media, in a nutshell.

But je digress. Theoretically, a news service that is authored by roving citizens could be one useful mechanism for leading us out of this platonic cave. The problem is, with a few notable exceptions, news organizations try reasonably hard to fact-check their stuff and make sure it’s true. A citizen-reporting system has no such safeguard. The Ohmynews.com people claim they do checking ….

“Marketing people and activists can pose as journalists to promote their own products and ideas,” said Choi Joon-suk, a senior editor at South Korea’s largest printed newspaper, Chosun Ilbo. “The quality of the online media is a huge problem.”

Oh disagrees. All stories are fact checked and edited by professional reporters before being posted on the Internet, he said. Only two stories have led to defamation cases.

I doubt this is true, or if it is, that it will remain true if Ohmynews.com grows larger. There’s no way anyone could do rigorous fact-checking on zillions of citizen contributions. That’s an inherent problem of an open-ended system.

So why not use the devices of an open-ended system to help solve it — like a reputation-management system? Instead of having a small, overworked cadre of editors try to fact-check each citizen article — have the readers themselves do it. You open up the system so that people reading a story can input confirmation of it, or denunciation of its facts if the writer was lying.

A reputation-management system at an open-source news organization could work like this: You have three columns on the front page. One is news that is “pretty much rock-solid true”; it’s been either independently verified by a paid editor, or it’s gotten hundreds of independent thumbs-ups. The next column is stuff that is “disputed” — and the third column is stuff that is like “yeah, this stuff is almost certainly false, but what the hell, you can read it for fun.”

Obviously, it’s possible to fake out a reputation-management system — by having people vote down stuff that’s true, or vote up stuff that’s wrong. But with such a large audience — 1.2 million people — Ohmynews.com would probably find that this would be minimized. Rep-management gaming tends to happen only in systems where a small number of viewers can have a powerful swing effect. If you have thousands of people voting on stories, it’s much harder (though not impossible) for someone to organize a campaign to game the system.

Indeed, wouldn’t it be fun if traditional news media implemented this system? What if, every day, Fox News or the Philadelphia Inquirer let you vote on whether or not a story were true? After all, one of the reasons Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass were able to get away with so much chicanery was that their audiences had no real way to complain. They had no input into the media system. If they had, maybe the writers’ fakery would have been noticed earlier.

Either way, I predict this concept — user-generated news — is going to increase in size and importance, worldwide.

(UPDATE: Jonathan has been writing some interesting thoughts about reputation-management, and argues on his blog that the word “credibility” may be a better term to use. Indeed, “credibility” is precisely the word journalists themselves use.)

(Thanks to Smart Mobs for finding this news item!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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