Army of average Joes culls through candidates' files, bios

Citizen journalists are using the Internet to do opposition research in the '08 campaign.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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.

Many hands made light work, as Mr. Marshall's readers readily took up the drudge work, knowing the effort might uncover Bush administration malfeasance.

Experts are mixed on whether campaigns would sponsor collaborative dirt-digging exercises against opponents. "I expect as soon as there is a nominee for either side ... [the campaigns] will start organizationally doing those types of research on the opponent," says David All, a GOP Internet strategist. One reader on the Democratic Party website registered his disgust with the collaborative research into Mr. Romney's finances, writing: "You are actually asking volunteers to help you prepare for negative mudslinging, for free. Some of us really, truly are sick of this kind of campaign."

There is plenty of scope for research into the issues, points out Zephyr Teachout, who was the director of online organizing for former presidential candidate Howard Dean during the 2004 election. For example, volunteers could dig into Senator Clinton's healthcare plan and show in their local communities who would or wouldn't get coverage, she says.

Even nonpartisan political projects, however, have found partisan energy to be a useful motivator for citizen contributions. A new effort called Wiki the Vote creates pages on all 2008 congressional candidates that can be edited by everyone – even campaign staff and other hyperpartisans.

"It's partially to encourage people who have an agenda and have a lot of facts. We don't want to discourage that, we want them to go nuts," says Conor Kenny, editor of the wiki, announced last week by the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation. Editors strip out rhetoric but allow imbalances of facts to be rectified organically by what he calls "the arms race factor" of partisans working to one-up each other.

Wiki the Vote contributors can draw on troves of data made more accessible by the Sunlight Foundation, including campaign finance reports. In the past, the group has teamed up professional journalists with volunteers willing to troll through the financial data.

One investigation took only 48 hours to uncover 19 House members who paid their spouses from campaign funds. Another looked into the way earmarks may have been used for personal profit or to reward political allies. These investigations require significant upfront planning to explain to volunteers what's needed and how to file.

For some writers who have tried collaborative journalism, the model raises questions about sustainability.

"People who start off doing them start off very enthusiastic, but I don't know if it's sustainable over a long period of time because they are not getting paid," says Charles Warner, a journalism professor emeritus at the University of Missouri and a participant in one of Mr. Rosen's previous collaborative projects. He says he probably wouldn't try it again.

"People that are into journalism want some kind of byline; they want somebody to read it," he adds.

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