Providing the check on open-source journalism

Tuesday, September 23, 2008 | 9:43 p.m. CDT; updated 10:41 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 24, 2008

On Friday, Sept. 12, the University of Missouri School of Journalism hosted a world-class panel of media experts to address profound questions and concepts facing journalists today, except for one. No one seemed enthused to try to pin down the "elephant in the auditorium": Does open-source journalism require editorial override to preserve integrity? As the world becomes more connected through the Internet and new technologies, journalists must address this potential quandary for their profession.

Open-source journalism, or reports from people on the street who are not professional journalists, have no current formal mechanism in place to ensure accuracy in reporting. Examples of open-source reporting including blogs,   Web sites such as Wikipedia and iReport on CNN. Anyone is encouraged to post their own "report" with very little control on the accuracy or utility of the information presented.


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We want journalistic integrity without censorship, but will credibility be one of the emergent phenomena as our open-source news structures of the future self-organize? Or instead will the integrity become merely roadkill on our digital super highway? Individuals on this panel mentioned how effectively open-source editing on high traffic sites refines the truth, as demonstrated by Wikipedia. We all know how simultaneously wonderful and horrid the human psyche can be, and we are grasping for some assurance that our collective inner beauty, not the beast within us, will emerge in our new era of self-organized, open-source journalism.    

Another issue is fraud. Fraud prevails on the Internet today because you can drop in and out of cyberspace simply by flicking that power switch on your wireless Internet card. Currently, there is no software that can reliably find a culprit after computer fraud has occurred. This will change with the next generation Internet. Soon we will all have our persistent identities firmly established online, even when our computers are turned off. The storage space that defines our persistent presence online will be managed by expert systems that will download all sensitive information if our PDA is lost, or if patterns of use indicate that it has fallen into the wrong hands. Clever techniques, based on the application of complexity and self-similarity in mathematics, make it possible to detect spoofed and unnatural data in real time without slowing our digital portals.  For example, check out this article from the Journal of Accountancy. There will be no way to vanish from our digital existence in the near future, so our persistent accountability there, with  firm links to our real identities, will virtually eliminate the opportunity to commit fraud online, provided that we maintain our determination  to punish fraud in the future.

My concern, though, is that the new, open-source media may become swamped with accurate reporting of absolutely worthless stories that do nothing to inform us, and hence nothing to improve our lives. If story rankings are driven only by counting the number of hits to the site, then we may find an emergent selection of news centers on nothing more than brain-stem level sensationalism, such as that which draws us to stare at a fatal car crash. Such stories are flooding broadcast media today, and this will likely be exacerbated through open-source media in the future. So are we destined to have little more than ‘Dirty Laundry' news in the future? I think not. Our hope rests primarily with our younger journalists and their commitment to assure that media truly improves the value of our lives. I observed the professional drive and ethical commitment of our journalism students at the Reynolds Journalism Institute dedication, leaving me with an optimistic view of our future. Leaders who strive for the creation of positive public value in everything that we do must continue to be selected naturally within these new processes. I suspect that credibility will emerge in our open-source news networks of the future. But will our leadership be bold enough to assure that they truly enrich our lives? There are practical ways to achieve this. Possibly this will become the essence of our new, more demanding definition of leadership in the future.           

R. V. Duncan is the Vice Chancellor for Research and a Professor of Physics at MU. 

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