Stories that might never be broken if a single reporter had to spend days researching them are now being covered by dilettante swarms rather than diligent professionals. It's a new form of journalism, reminiscent less of old-fashioned investigative reporting than of the decentralized "peer production" that generates open source software. If it had a slogan, it might be "We report, we decide."
New York University law professor Yochai Benkler has argued that open source works because programming is a "granular" task -- the job of coding a massive piece of software can be broken into many small pieces -- and because the Internet allows the rapid collating and peer filtering of work done by thousands of dispersed individuals. Traditional programming requires a few coders to commit a lot of time and effort, for which they will reasonably expect to be paid. When the software's source code is freely available, however, the big job can be done in small increments by a large pool of volunteers. The results are filtered for quality the same way, with superior pieces of coding copied and spread through the population.
Distributed journalism works similarly. Different lines of inquiry will occur to different people, who bring different kinds of knowledge to bear on the same topic. The ability to concatenate that information online -- particularly via those motley commentary sites and open diaries called blogs -- makes the information discovered by each available to all.
To see the process in action, consider the case of John R. Lott, author of More Guns, Less Crime, which argues that concealed-carry gun laws reduce crime. In 1999 the sociologist Otis Dudley Duncan questioned Lott's claim that "if national surveys are correct, 98 percent of the time that people use guns defensively, they merely have to brandish a weapon to break off an attack."
The major research on defensive gun use, Duncan objected, had shown firing rates ranging from 21 percent to over 60 percent. Lott replied that "national surveys" actually referred to his own heretofore unknown survey of 2,424 households. When Duncan pressed him for the survey data, Lott demurred, saying a hard drive crash had destroyed his data set and the original tally sheets had been lost. In fact, there seemed to be no record at all of the study, nor could Lott recall the names of any of the students who he said had worked on it. Some people began to suspect the study, which is tangential to Lott's conclusions in More Guns, didn't exist.
The controversy moved to an e-mail list for academics interested in gun issues. There it brewed until January 10, 2003, when it was discovered and linked to by blogger Marie Gryphon. Dozens of blogs picked up the story, and Tim Lambert, one of Lott's leading critics on the e-list, set up a weblog of his own.
Within weeks, articles on the controversy appeared in The Washington Post, U.S. News and World Report, and other major outlets. Northwestern University law professor James Lindgren, who played a leading role in investigating both Lott and the disgraced gun historian Michael Bellesiles, notes that "at the parallel stage of the investigation into Bellesiles, he was getting a prize for his work."
Why did the Lott story break so quickly? Part of the difference relates to how the two scandals were investigated. The initial heavy lifting in the Bellesiles case was done by amateur historian Clayton Cramer, later joined by Lindgren, who tried with little immediate success to interest professional historians in the problems he found with Bellesiles' research. Only when a few committed investigators had uncovered clear proof of malfeasance did the wheels of the academy begin to turn. At that point, the mainstream media took notice.
With Lott, most of the information bloggers had when the story first leaked, including extensive interviews with many of the principals, was again owed to Lindgren's efforts. Once it was released into the blogosphere, however, reporters could find it quickly on blogs. At the same time, the investigation became an open source affair.
The first round of dispersed investigation came when a Minnesota attorney named David Gross came forward to say he had been the subject of a survey that sounded like Lott's. The Washington Times ran a brief story implying that the question about Lott's survey was now closed.
But bloggers were more skeptical: Gross turned out to be a gun rights activist himself, with the group Concealed Carry Reform, NOW! Historian Thomas Spencer unearthed a letter to the Minneapolis Star Tribune in which Gross wrote that gun control advocates "dance on the graves of the innocent victims and glory in their spilled blood." Another blogger, the pseudonymous Atrios, found news reports recounting how Gross had taken over the names of several gun control groups that had neglected to renew their corporate status with the state.
Of course, a gun activist would be the most likely to hear about the controversy and come forward. But skeptics continued to doubt Gross' account, and some of Lott's former defenders wrote that they wished for some further independent confirmation of his account. Lott, currently a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has conducted a new survey, which he includes in his new book, The Bias Against Guns (Regnery).
Meanwhile, several of the bloggers who had been writing about the controversy -- a group that included me -- drew the ire of someone called Mary Rosh. Rosh, who identified herself as a former student of Lott's who had long admired his fairness and rigor, said that it was irresponsible to post links to the survey debate without calling Lott first. This sounded odd, not only because bloggers very seldom do that kind of background research before posting a link, but because Lott had made precisely the same criticism several times in e-mails to bloggers covering the story.
A Google search revealed that Rosh had for several years been a prolific contributor to Usenet forums, where she regularly and vociferously defended the work of Lott. On a whim, I compared the I.P. address on Rosh's comment to the one on an e-mail Lott had sent me from his home. They were the same.
I posted all of this, and to his credit Lott confessed. "The MaRyRoSh pen name account," he explained, "was created years ago for an account for my children, using the first two letters of the names of my four sons."
The news spread quickly, and the second round of distributed investigation began. Bloggers unearthed old posts by "Rosh" and linked to them on their sites. Among the gems: "[Lott] was the best professor that I ever had….Lott finally had to tell us that it was best for us to try and take classes from other professors more to be exposed to other ways of teaching graduate material." Many were troubled by Rosh's apparent attempt to get an online interlocutor, who claimed to have anonymously peer-reviewed one of Lott's papers, to reveal his identity. (Lott later told The Chronicle of Higher Education that he was merely trying to force his opponent to confess that he had lied about being an academic.)
Whatever the final effect of the controversy on Lott's reputation, it demonstrates that the effect of blogs on journalism is more than hype. If Lott is at last conclusively vindicated, perhaps by the emergence of one of his student volunteers, it will probably be the result of the exposure the story received from bloggers. If he is not, he can count on a thousand-eyed Argus keeping a close watch on his future work.
Perhaps more important, the Lott saga proves that distributed journalism works. This matters, because the process depends partly on people's belief that it can work. Stories such as Lott's show that it's worth the time -- that if you're unsure about a fact in a news story, or think a reporter should have asked another question, it's worthwhile to fire up your browser or fire off an e-mail.