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Palin's emails and the limits of crowdsourcing

Posted by Rob Anderson  June 9, 2011 02:57 PM

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sarah.JPGThe Washington Post has gone all new media on us, and I don't exactly like it.

On Friday morning, 25,000 pages of Sarah Palin's email from her short stint as governor will be released to the public. These include the emails between Palin and her husband, if either one was using a state account at the time. Claiming that its too much information to digest, the Post is "looking for some help" from the public "to analyze, contextualize, and research those emails right alongside Post reporters."

While public participation to support journalistic endeavors is the mainstay of major political blogs (it's called crowdsourcing), and public accounts and pictures of unfolding events are used by major news outlets, the Post's experiment is dangerous and lazy.

It's dangerous because it falls into the trap of treating Palin as a pop star (I'd excuse the Post for doing this for Lindsay Lohan's prison diaries) rather than the former leader of a state, even if it is non-contiguous, and a former VP nominee. It always seems like one big party around Palin, and the Post is just playing into that persona. Palin is serious, and even if she is not running for office, her disciples such as Michele Bachmann are. Any information that would be of interest to the public is now inherently suspect. How the Post chooses the participants should certainly be under scrutiny, as will the backgrounds of those they appoint.

In addition, it is not clear why the Post finds 25,000 emails onerous. Take 10 reporters and give them 2500 emails each. Many of those emails are replies to replies to replies; they are not stand alones. It isn't as if there is an election tomorrow. Give them a few days, a few weeks even, as the New York Times did with wikileaks. (The Times asked readers to help with the Palin emails, too, but in a much more limited way.)

Of course, editors at the Post are worried about competitors in the blogosphere who may stumble upon gems before they do. The news site plans to immediately scan the documents to create an electronic archive. I can understand the desire to outpace the .com media world, but the Post will give up a lot of quality control when it outsources its analysis.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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