Open source journalism gets its name from open source programming, which involves beta versions of software being critiqued and tested for bugs by the public before the final piece of software is released. Open source pragmatists hold true to the idea that better software will be created from the scrutiny inherent in the collaborative process.
Open journalism approaches the public in a very similar way; as living information with which to engage. In traditional forms of journalism, a ‘source’ was an individual whom provided information for a story, and generally their identity was protected if the information was sensitive. Open source journalism takes those individuals, and metaphorically prints their names alongside the authors (with consent); available to be contacted by other journalists looking to follow a similar story.
The public can be an effective news gathering tool, or means to generate an outside critique of any specific news item. The public is pooling its expertise and ideally helping the journalist get the final product as accurate as possible. This can be achieved through public comments, different modes of collaboration, offering outside ideas and rigorous fact checking of data. Open source journalism is closely linked to citizen journalism (amateur news reporting), participatory journalism and user created content.
Stockpiles and a history of this open sourced data also exist with websites like DocumentCloud. As a web-based software platform created for journalists, it allows the searching, analysing, annotation and publication of primary source documents used in reporting. Newsrooms, including the New York Times, LA Times, The Guardian, PBS, the Las Vegas Sun and other news organizations, have uploaded over 1.5 million pages since June 2011.
Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of Guardian News & Media, sees open source journalism not as a threat to journalists’ control over information, but a shared relationship of power and authority. ‘Journalists are not the only experts in the world’, he said. ‘We are describing something that has a far greater joint authority that comes about through shared information and through a shared idea about what the community needs.’
The Guardian is well known for expanding its use of open source journalism, and searching for ways in which it can become a part of a viable business model.
Is blogging considered open source journalism?
Blogs are a significant platform for open source culture. Websites like WordPress.com open their software to the public, to be used and modified to suit the tastes of the user. It doesn’t need any understanding of design or coding.
However given the legal tradition of copyright, blogs are not ‘open source’ in regard to the content they publish. Much like any academic article, a web surfer is prohibited from taking a bloggers words or user comments, and recycling them in another form without acknowledging the author’s copyright. However in the production of a blog post, in the writing and research phases, blogs are capable of open sourcing their material from the public.
The popularity of blogs, such as Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo, which receives close to a million visitors a month, are sometimes dependant on this outside help as Marshall explains in a blog post,
‘It would have been impossible for me … to have written most of what I’ve written on Social Security … if I didn’t have literally thousands of people reading their local papers and letting me know what they’re seeing or reporting back from town hall meetings and giving me the heads up on things about to break on the hill.’
When did the idea begin to influence media?
The term ‘open source journalism’ was first coined by Andrew Leonard in 1999, a technology columnist at Salon. In his story, Leonard identified where a journalist from Jane’s Intelligence Review, solicited feedback from Slashdot readers about an article on cyber-terrorism.
What happened next would begin to share the balance of power and authority between an online media institution and its readers. The Slashdot readers ‘sliced and diced’ the original, chastised its poor quality and identified errors that they could fix. The editor at Jane’s Intelligence Review saw this as an opportunity to improve upon the original feature, and ordered it to be rewritten, only this time with the inclusion of the best Slashdot comments, and compensation for those contributors who made it into the final copy.
This did attract criticism from other journalists, namely online columnist for PBS, Robert X. Cringely, who says it is the duty of the journalist, and the journalist alone, to write the news in the best manner he can.
Slashdot is significant because it has pioneered this new kind of journalism. The site rarely features original material, instead offering a rich expertise in its commentary sections by its readers.
What ethical questions are raised by open source journalism?
Credibility: As with online journalism, the rapid writing and publishing of news on the internet, is likely achieved at the expense of accuracy and thorough editing. Throw into this mix additional public material, by those untrained in journalism or industry standards, and the responsibility to get it right becomes even harder to verify. Is the material verifiable? Questions need to be raised about who wrote it, and why?
Loss of balance and fairness: Through under sourced or inaccurate reporting, gathered through public channels of information sourcing, the functions of the Press Council would be increasingly difficult. Press transparency and honesty would be harder to maintain in an environment where there are numerous contributors to one article.
Information as a commodity: The internet has already become a treasure trove of facts, stories and quotes, almost relieving journalists of their need to carry out serious investigations. The idea of open source journalism taps, not into the internet, but into the publics’ combined expertise, making it even simpler to gather information (filtered through a person’s understanding) rather than independently discovering new facts.
Accountability: If an article has been written by a dozen different authors, who is pinpointed if the information is found to be misleading, or defamatory?
Robert Angelone is a second year student at La Trobe University, studying Strategic Communication. He is an amateur blogger, and hopes to study in the UK later this year.