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Crowdsourcing Elizabeth Edwards | The Nation

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Crowdsourcing Elizabeth Edwards

John and Elizabeth Edwards' decision to continue his presidentialbid, despite learning that Ms. Edwards was diagnosed with incurablebut treatable cancer, has sparked impassioned discussions across thecountry and the blogosphere. In fact, Americans have probablydiscussed the family's choice more than anything else Mr. Edwards hasdone during the campaign thus far. That is definitely true online,where debates over the couple's choice even inspired The New YorkTimes to break with tradition and use Internet "crowdsource"reporting from its own blog for the very first time.

Last Thursday, there were 2,000 blog entries citing Mr. Edwards, morereferences than any other day in the past year, according toTechnorati. That record-breaking volume was matched by unusuallystrong reactions to the blog commentaries. An entry about the news on TheNew York Times political blog, The Caucus, drew over 600comments, easily quadrupling the typical feedback for the site's mostpopular entries, with many personal and heartfelt contributions.

Posting a comment from Bosnia, Janet A. Leff relayed how shenever halted her international volunteer work during "treatment andrecovery" for seven tumors. "Elizabeth should be listened to, and letthis couple make their own decisions. At 65 I am still amazed howmany uninformed people make decisions about and for cancer patients,"she wrote, signing off, "thanks for listening, Janet alive and wellin Bosnia i Herzegovina!" Another commenter explained that afterbattling breast cancer twice, she could understand why Ms. Edwardswould want the campaign to continue. "[I] greatly encouraged myhusband to pursue hobbies, hoping to break his focus on my health,"she wrote.

While Americans took to the Internet to share personal experiencesand prayers for the Edwards family, the media and political worldrushed to measure the potential effect on Mr. Edwards' candidacy. Ina thoughtful front page article this weekend, The Times' KirkJohnson tried to gauge the mood of a public that had "seized" on thedifficult choice the Edwards family made. It is a significant topic,but very difficult to report accurately. Besides cold-calling thephonebook, how do you learn what people really think of the news?How do you find people who have followed the story or care about it?And in a country with two million women who have been treated for breast cancer, how do you learn what survivors think? After all, cancersurvivors understand the pain and challenges facing the Edwardsfamily better than anyone, and they are likely to lead public opinionon the rectitude of the family's decision. That's a lot for areporter to tackle on deadline.

So Mr. Johnson, to his credit, tapped the pool of sources and cancersurvivors that had already gathered to discuss the decision on TheTimes' political blog. Citing the comments section, he concludedthat "a major dividing point in how people reacted to the Edwardses'decision was their experience with cancer in themselves or a lovedone." Mr. Johnson also called Ms. Leff in Bosnia and related herinspiring story in the article:

Janet Leff, 65, a breast cancer survivor whose cancer had also spreadto her bones, said all the talk about what the Edwardses should orshould not do is misguided. It is nobody's business but theirs, shesaid. When her cancer was diagnosed five years ago, she wasvolunteering as a social worker in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Family membersurged her to come home, give up the hard life in a war-ravagedcountry. She ignored them, she said, and she thinks that is partlywhy she is still alive. "The two of them know what they both need,"said Ms. Leff, who is still in Bosnia-Herzegovina and describedherself as a Republican. Ms. Leff agreed to be interviewed bytelephone after posting a comment on The Times' blog. "It'snot easy on anybody, but it's no time to sit and watch the grassgrow," she said. "You have to keep your life going, because whetherit gets to the terminal stage or not, you don't know until it's there."

This is the first time a New York Times national article hasquoted a source from the paper's own political blog, according to asearch on Lexis.com.

(The Times quoted a source from its regional blog, The EmpireZone, for the first and only time in January, in a metro article onInternet theories about a "mysterious stench" that had passed throughManhattan.)

It is a significant step, coming at a time when some journalists areexperimenting with ways to tap online networks for new sources,information and even primary reporting. This "open source" model,often called "crowdsourcing," can range from swiftly plucking acancer survivor's story from a newspaper's blog, as Mr. Johnson did,to pooling the collective knowledge of thousands of readers in highlyorchestrated long-term projects. (Apart from journalism,Crowdsourcing has pooled amateur labor to produce complex computerprograms, research and even art.)

Last week marked the official launch of NYU Professor Jay Rosen's Assignment Zero, anambitious site that empowers people to research and write storiestogether, with guidance from a professional editor who has worked forSalon and National Public Radio. The effort, which is fundedby Reuters, The MacArthur Foundation, Craigslist's Craig Newmark andWired Magazine (which coined "crowdsourcing" in its Juneissue), will test how a "smart crowd" of volunteers can enhance thework of professional journalists.

Even if projects like Assignment Zero do not immediately succeed infostering collaborative journalism, crowdsourcing is already usefulfor quoting the public's reactions to current events. The passion,authenticity and strong opinions shooting across the blogosphereprovide far more feedback than a reporter can assemble via "person-in-the-street" interviews, which are less likely to pinpoint people whoknow the given topic anyway. The traditional media may still bereluctant to crowdsource because the tactic seems too new or too self-selected; a common argument is that journalists should stick to theircraft and readers don't want to read the notes piling up in blogs andreporters' inboxes. But the Internet will continue to stimulate andenable a more participatory society, further blurring the linebetween writer and reader, producer and consumer, quotable expert andblog commenter. Journalism will increasingly engage thisdevelopment, both because it is a reality that accurate reportersshould cover, and more practically, it is what the audience wants.Or, as Professor Rosen would say, it'swhat the "people formerly known as the audience" want.

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