Module JG290

Open Source Journalism

Module author

Kate Dawson

University of Texas

Austin School of Film

Learning objectives

After studying this module, you will be able to:

  • Define open source journalism and explain this journalistic genre;
  • Give an overview of the historic development of the genre, including key persons who established it;
  • Reflect open source journalism critically.
Study point 1
Reading extract Open-Source Journalism


Why Open School of Journalism believes that Open Source Journalism is important zu know

Attempting to define what open source journalism first requires a look at how the term evolved. This genre of journalism is based on the concept of open source programming, which allows for public testing beta versions of software in order to provide critiques on how to improve the viability of the product in question.

The term was first adopted in relation to journalism in October 1999, when the online magazine Salon referenced how Jane's Intelligence Review, a publication that dealt with the subject of threat analysis, had asked for critiques from users of the website Slashdot about an article concerning cyberterrorism. The criticism toward the article was intense enough for it to be shelved, with a new article that included information derived from the Slashdot users.

The journalistic version of this approach has been compared to such offshoots as participatory journalism, citizen journalism and user-created content. In some sense, it means an author is requesting or receiving the assistance of the public (in effect, crowdsourcing) in making sure that the finished product is as complete and accurate as possible.

Such approaches generally run the gamut from asking readers to conduct fact checking on an article to having individuals doing a mountain of leg work to collectively gather information germane to a specific thesis. 

In many cases, the use of raw information without any filtering by editors is offered in order to at least give the appearance of transparency. Whether or not it is 100 percent accurate remains a potential drawback that can hinder the messenger.

Generally, the most avid users of this collaborative brand of journalism tend to be news-oriented organizations that are under financial constraints. Despite the continuing struggles of newspapers that have seen circulation numbers drop precipitously over the past decade, this form has not reached a stage where such organizations have adopted it in any widespread form.

However, the idea that adopting this form of journalism can cost next to nothing is something of a misnomer, based on the experiences of Al Jazeera. Constant attempts by the Syrian government to hack into the organization's servers have led to additional costs related to maintenance and support.

Still, one of the positives offered in defense of open source journalism is that it helps engage an audience on a variety of topics that could help shed light on a story that hasn't received much coverage in what are considered the usual media circles. It also can be presented as an antidote to the often weak voting numbers each year that give rise to claims of rampant apathy.

Criticisms about the genre include the merging of journalistic objectivity and public relations content, which can blur the line between accuracy and the marketing of a product or political agenda. For example, a person who is deemed an expert by this form of journalism may in fact represent a lobbying faction that only offers their side of a story.

In addition, the fact that stories can be published immediately, with little or no attempt to edit the content. While users can then distribute the story to a wider audience, that practice can cause problems if inaccuracies or distortions exist within an article. Complicating this issue is the fact that the collective contributions that helped put together the article can make it difficult to determine where exactly such erroneous information first originated.

Websites such as Reddit attempt to offer information on a story through the work of visitors, but in some cases, that effort can go very wrong. 

For example, stories about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing on the site included inaccurate information about the supposed involvement of people who were completely innocent of the crime, and brought complaints about vigilante justice being offered up. Individuals were attempting to determine guilt based on their own perceptions. That's difficult to do for even the most experienced of investigators, let alone a faceless contributor on an online forum.

Given the slashed budgets that are a major part of today's everyday journalism, those who will be part of the industry in the future will likely have to have a greater awareness of or accommodation toward it in order to do the best job possible. The alternative is to try and produce content within a financial straitjacket that shows no signs of loosening in the future.