Wednesday, February 28, 2007
iCan: Covering Communities by Crowdsourcing
Crowdsourcing, a journalistic technique wherein the reporter relies on the numbers and collective wisdom of crowds to gather truth on a scale impossible to match with dwindling news staffs and fading coverage. One new and innovative form of crowdsourcing, namely the BBC's iCan program. Founded in 2003, iCan seeks to empower community activists and even citizens not normally engaged in the political process to join together in so-called "action networks" to effect change on a local level. Journalists then monitor the results and cover any stories that arise out of the work of local activists.
This new way of reporting community activism, by encouraging it and providing the tools necessary to implement it, shows a great deal of ingenuity and foresight on the part of the BBC. In their efforts to get the best news coverage, they utilize the tools of community activism. The program aims to draw together people behind the banner of uplifting their own communities in various online networks to effect change on the local level.
The danger inherent in this model should be clear, namely that the reporters who cover the news are, at least in some sense, creating it. This can lead to a wag the dog scenario in which the journalists shape the very same events about which they are reporting. Such a tactic calls to mind the famed case of William Randolph Hearst, who is said to have inflamed tensions during the Spanish American War in order to sell papers. Journalists always run the risk of a conflict of interest when they get involved in the very stories they cover.
At the same time, some writers, like Spiked.com's Martyn Perks, believe the efforts do not go far enough. The rules prohibit campaigning directly before an election and fund raising, both of which might be considered part and parcel of community activism and both of which can be newsworthy. Because the BBC is promoting iCan, the journalists must be careful not to break any election laws or to encourage others to do so. Given that many of the most controversial, and therefore potentially the most newsworthy types of protests and activist efforts might fall outside the purview of iCan. BBC therefore runs the risk of having its iCan networks labeled inefficient and ineffective compared to other efforts without the restrictions necessary to get national funding for a project.
This delicate balancing act may be exceedingly difficult to maintain, and its relatively short history leaves little track record to show whether the scales are tipped one way or the other. Ultimately, it may take several years to shake out the exact impact this service will have on the public at large. In the mean time, the British can expect to continue to see the results of iCan action networks. Crowdsourcing is here to stay.