Army of average Joes culls through candidates' files, bios
Citizen journalists are using the Internet to do opposition research in the '08 campaign.
Mayhill Fowler wrote a significant Web-only political story this week that took the temperature of the Democratic electorate. More remarkable than her conclusion – that Democrats are more undecided and less Iraq-focused than polls suggest – is the whopping 17 reporters in nine states who filed on-the-ground accounts to contribute to it.Skip to next paragraph
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The cornucopia of contributors, surpassing what most news outlets could ever afford, cost virtually nothing. That's because the reporters are volunteers, including Ms. Fowler, a Californian, who at age 60 has embraced beat reporting on Barack Obama.
"I looked through all the information that people sent in and I came up with what I thought were the significant things we discovered in these 14 cities on Saturday," she says. Her story was published online by Off the Bus, a project boasting 1,500 citizen journalists and affiliation with The Huffington Post, a liberal website.
"Until [this] post, there's nothing really on the Obama campaign that I think we've brought that the mainstream media can't. It's this kind of joint effort that really is the thing," she adds.
Collaborative citizen-reporting projects like this one are sprouting across the political landscape of Election 2008. Thousands of volunteers are adding muscle to efforts by professional reporters and campaign staff to leave no stone unturned – and no skeletons in the closet. But to drive volunteer interest, many of these "crowdsourcing" efforts draw more energy from partisan fervor than traditional journalism's impartiality, say experts.
"Every project like this [needs to find] the motivations of the contributors: Why would they spend some time and share their knowledge and get it right?" says Jay Rosen, a pioneer of collaborative journalism and copublisher of Off the Bus. "To me, the big advance of these projects is [understanding that] people who don't have the same professional neutrality [as journalists] about things have a lot to say about American politics, too."
In the case of Fowler, she says the aspects of Obama she likes don't prevent her from being inquisitive and at times critical.
What excites many people about politics, however, is taking sides and reveling in the whole spear-chucking tribalism of it all. While opposition research used to be the province of professionals, in this election, the Internet is allowing people to dip in when they have some free time.
Democratic volunteers are publicly digging into Mitt Romney's financial disclosure statements; Republicans have proposed group research into Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's congressional earmarks.
The left-leaning blog Talking Points Memo pioneered this type of distributed opposition research this summer during the controversy over the fired US attorneys. When the Justice Department turned over thousands of e-mails related to the case, blogger in chief Josh Micah Marshall encouraged readers to comb through the data dump for evidence of wrongdoing.