The Colorado shooting and the crowdsourced future of news

Only a few days ago, we were writing about how users of Twitter and Reddit used those networks to tell a compelling story about a mass shooting in Toronto, and now the same phenomenon is playing out in real-time during another horrific incident: a shooting at a movie theater in Colorado that has killed at least a dozen people and wounded more than 50. Although local TV news channels and CNN have been all over the story since it broke late Thursday night, some of the best fact-based information gathering has been taking place on Reddit and via curation tools like Storify. In each of these events, we can see how a new form of journalism — one that blends traditional reporting and crowdsourced reports — is taking shape.
As media writer Andrew Beaujon at the Poynter Institute notes, Reddit quickly became the go-to spot for comprehensive information about the shooting and its aftermath. Although other sites put up Storify collections of tweets from individuals who were at the scene — including one of the victims — as a way of tracking how the news spread, the community of users at Reddit went a step further: they collaborated in real time to produce a continuously updated timeline of the event, complete with links to where they obtained the information. That kind of collaboration is something many cash-strapped newsrooms simply no longer have the resources to produce (Buzzfeed has an interview with the 18-year-old Reddit user who created most of the timeline).

Eyewitness reports, crowdsourced timelines, Q&As

But Reddit hosted more than just the timeline: while other mainstream media outlets spoke to people who were near the incident (many of whom added little in the way of useful detail) Reddit had several submissions from members of the community who were actually in the theater when the shooting started — and because of the way Reddit functions, commenters were able to interact with those eyewitnesses in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in any other format except a staged conversation on a TV talk show. Not only that, but one person involved in the incident actually posted photos of their wounds to the site. As one commenter noted:

“How cool is it we can ask a guy a question over the internet about an event that happened less than 8 hours ago firsthand? Reporters couldn’t get on a plane and find someone that quickly. The future is now.”

Reddit wasn’t the only place where such reports were appearing, of course. The brother of one of the victims wrote a touching blog post about his sister, who was not only an aspiring sportscaster but had also narrowly escaped being shot during a similar mass shooting in a Toronto shopping mall in June. Other eyewitnesses and those injured in the Colorado shooting posted their thoughts to Twitter, including one that was retweeted by movie critic Roger Ebert and then redistributed by thousands of others. And mainstream journalists like Daniel Petty of the Denver Post also turned their Twitter streams into real-time breaking news feeds.

In each of these cases, we can see several different factors coming into play that are changing the way the news and/or journalism (however you define it) is being practiced. There are “sources going direct,” as blogging pioneer Dave Winer has described it — in other words, eyewitnesses and victims and others telling their stories directly themselves, without having to wait for traditional journalists to find them and ask them questions. This may make things more chaotic and harder to understand initially, but it also means that those who want direct information can get it without waiting for it to be filtered by a news entity.

Reddit shows the power of a community approach to news

The other phenomenon is the crowdsourcing of information gathering that occurred with the Colorado timeline, something that wouldn’t be possible without the community-based approach that Reddit is built on. That community can be a powerful force for good — as we’ve seen with Reddit-driven campaigns such as the Caine’s Arcade fundraising effort — and it also allows everyday users to become part of the news-gathering process. As I argued in my recent post about the Toronto shooting, this is very similar to the “Twitter as a newsroom” approach that Andy Carvin of NPR took during the revolution in Egypt (and is continuing to take during the ongoing violence in Syria).
And it’s not just the news-gathering aspect — as the Reddit commenter mentioned above, the site’s community platform also allows people who wouldn’t normally be part of the traditional journalism sphere of influence to interact with those affected by a story like Colorado, by doing things like asking questions of those involved. I have no doubt that Reddit will be hosting some of its trademark “Ask Me Anything” crowdsourced interviews about the shooting, something that can be much more valuable than a canned interview weeks after the incident with a TV talking head.
As a number of readers pointed out about the Toronto shooting, this kind of crowdsourced journalism or reporting brings with it some risks as well, such as the potential for fake news reports and those pretending to be eyewitnesses. Do we know that Reddit user “themurderator” is who he claims to be, or that the photos are real? Obviously, care needs to be taken to verify whatever can be verified, as Poynter notes in a post on how to approach real-time reporting on such events. Many could learn from the approach the BBC takes with its “user-generated content desk,” and Storyful CEO Mark Little has written for the Nieman Foundation about how the service handles verification of YouTube videos and other content.
Reddit itself can operate as a fairly powerful and fast-acting verification engine as well, as The Atlantic noted recently when someone tried to create Wikipedia entries about fake historical events. And it’s important to note that whether it’s for reporting or fact-checking or eyewitness reports, Reddit and other services don’t replace traditional journalism, they enhance it. As journalism professor Jay Rosen likes to say, journalism gets better when there are more people doing it.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Yan-Arief Purwanto and Petteri Sulonen