No More Amateur Hour

[7 May 2007]

By Amy DePaul

If the term “citizen journalist” immediately brings to mind Wolf Blitzer in the Situation Room calling on viewers to send in their hurricane footage, then think again.

The Sunlight Foundation is tapping public expertise and enthusiasm to investigate federal government waste and corruption. It’s part of a trend toward using the Internet to make a variety of technologies available to the public, and then inviting people to use these tools to participate in an investigation.

Some recent and current Sunlight projects include asking the public to follow the step-by-step instructions on their website to determine which congressional representatives put spouses on their campaign payrolls (19, totaling $636,876) or to find out which representatives are behind $500 million in earmarked funds (sometimes known as “pork”). News organizations are starting to see the value. The Examiner, a new daily newspaper in Washington, DC, collaborated with Sunlight on the earmark project. You can see how these various projects are progressing at Sunlight Labs (scroll down) and even try out one of the demos.

And there are other ways journalists are tapping citizen knowledge and expertise, for example, using their blogs to pose questions and seek help from potential sources.

“It’s leveraging citizen energy, figuring out how that works,” explains Daniel Lathrop, investigative reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who follows trends in technology and investigative journalism. “For example, our Microsoft reporter tells readers in his blog what he’s working on, and people sometimes write back with sources and information.”

It’s a new idea but there is some literature on the topic, including an article calling on journalists to embrace – rather than fear – technology-backed citizen investigation.

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