Guardian calls in the crowd to uncover the next Sarah Palin scandal

June 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Guardian newspaper wants your help. It’s crowdsourcing contributions from the amateur web to help sort over 24,000 pages of emails sent and received by United States presidential hopeful Sarah Palin when she was governor of Alaska in 2007 and 2008.

In a daring move to enable the voluntary involvement of the social web, the Guardian has established an online process that enables each of us to contribute if we want to by helping sift through this massive collection of documents.

The emails, which may or may not prove a treasure trove of gripping insights and shocking revelations about the maverick American politician, were released as hard copy documents. That’s why dozens of journalists have been in the Alaskan capital Juneau to make digital copies for their respective news rooms to pore over.

The Guardian, a Manchester based media organisation, tells us that two of its US correspondents have been scanning the papers from their Alaskan hotel room but because of the huge number, the job is simply too big for the professionals. So it is co-opting its readership to help find the interesting stuff.

“We reckon the collective eyes of thousands of you will find the juicy bits more quickly, so we’ll be publishing the raw mails on our website as quickly as we can and asking you to tell us which ones are interesting and why,” The Guardian said on June 10, the day the emails were released.

“They’ll be pretty rough and ready – no headlines or details of what they’re about – but we hope you’ll help us by using our simple system to tag them according to what subjects they cover, and how interesting they are.”

Here’s how to take part. Click on the button that says ‘Show me an unseen email’ and you’re in the investigative journalism game. Who would have thought journalism could be this social and so much fun? The page also includes progress updates (when I checked while writing this post, nearly 11000 pages had been read and tagged) and you can also tweet @gdnpalin to let the Guardian team know that you have turned up a  journalistic gold nugget or not, as the case may be.

The Guardian was one of the news organisations canvassed by the American Society of Newspaper Editors for its recent 10 Best Practices for Social Media report. In the study, the UK newspaper listed eight best practice points for its journalists blogging or responding to comments on its website, including this gem: Encourage readers to contribute perspectives, additional knowledge and expertise. Acknowledge their additions.

It will be interesting to see if the Guardian’s collegial social media policy becomes increasingly practised by other media organisations. But let’s go back to the other story.

The Palin emails saga began three years ago when Sarah Palin shot to prominence as a possible running mate for Republican presidential candidate John McCain. At the time, a political journalist for Mother Jones magazine, David Corn (@DavidCornDC on Twitter), noticed the state of Alaska had an open records law that had been successfully used by a citizen activist.

Corn’s request for Palin’s emails under that law three years ago has now paid a big dividend. His story on how it all came about is a riveting read. It is also encouraging for all of us who have high expectations of freedom of information and transparency in government. It is also an inspiring example of granular and patient journalism carried out by a dogged and resourceful reporter.

But there are several caveats to the way the state governor’s office has acceded to the request for the emails – which was followed by other requests from a number of other media organisations as Palin’s political profile soared.

The first is that the process took three years because of what David Corn called evident foot dragging. The second is that over 2000 pages have been withheld and many of those released will contain redactions. Also, Corn says, the right to withhold a portion of the emails can be justified under “executive” or “deliberative process” privileges that protected correspondence between Palin and her aides about policy matters. The other issue is that Palin also used at least two personal email accounts to correspond with aides which the state governor’s office said was beyond its access to provide.

The released emails may well harbour a smoking gun to harm Palin’s probable run for the Republican candidacy in the 2012 presidential race. But given the documents withheld or redacted by the Alaskan government, the emails are unlikely to really hurt her chances and her supporters will continue to rally around her. As yet, nothing terribly damaging has been uncovered.

While Sarah Palin’s emails are Little League in comparison with something like the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon, there’s a lot to admire in a news story that was made possible by old school journalism with help from the social web.

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