If you’re reporting local or niche news, there’s a good chance that your audience collectively knows more about the story than you do. That’s especially true for us at Gun Memorial, a small publication with a nationwide mission of covering every American who is shot dead. In our latest, mostly successful, experiment, we let readers add to our stories without editor intervention. This article shares some lessons from that experience.
Asking for reader contributions
A large fraction of Gun Memorial’s traffic comes from “organic search” and many of those people are friends and family who are trying to follow the news on their recently-deceased loved one. These are exactly the kinds of people that reporters try to interview for the “friends and family mourn” articles sometimes written a day or two after a homicide.
Rather than do real interviews, we introduced a “profile builder” at the bottom of each victim’s page. It is designed to efficiently gather personal and biographical factoids from our readers.
Each of the gray-boxed phrases is a response from an anonymous reader and in this article we call each of these phrases an “answer.” Of the six categories of information we are requesting, five are pretty straightforward and factual. The exception is “personality,” which is very subjective, and I’ll talk more about that later.
Anyone can visit a page and anonymously change a profile; there is no registration or login and that should encourage participation. We prevent vandalism and misinformation using a simple, anonymous moderation system; readers can either “like” or “delete” others’ answers. The number of likes is shown in green next to the “thumbs up” icon. On the other hand, an answer is removed from the page if any single reader chooses to “delete” it. Thus, a vandal’s work is very easily removed by anyone who later visits.
How readers contributed
In the first 20 days since the profile builder launched June 30, 2,364 answers were posted, 1,744 likes were recorded, and 249 answers were deleted, including 72 which were deleted by the same person who posted it (presumably as a correction.) For reference, in the same time period we had 339,000 pageviews from 45,000 sessions, and our popular “light a candle” feature was used 14,332 times.
Gathering about 100 little bits of new information each day is pretty significant for us, but we need to evaluate the quality of these posts before calling it a success. I scanned through all the answers and drew a few conclusions:
Overall, the answers were very effective at humanizing our stories. Readers wholly ignore the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation, but they nonetheless do a great job of painting a picture of the deceased.
For example, here are 25 randomly-chosen, unedited answers for the “occupation” prompt:
- dog groomer
- Music Artist
- business owner
- bluebonnet feeds
- Dan was to leave for the US ARMY days before his murder
- amazing grandma
- Killigans, Steel Company
- CEO, Producer, Artist
- Go Getter
- Cook at Kickback Jacks
- soil testing
- sing and baseball
- lived off of women
In most cases, this occupation information is not already published in an online obituary, a Facebook profile, or in a news report. We’ve unearthed and published new information (although it’s not entirely trustworthy.)
For the “personality” prompt some answers include:
- fun loving
- inspirational loving giving unconditional live with no regrets love with all you have
- He loved his family. He loved to make people laugh.
- He was a loving father, son, brother, nephew, and friend to many
- Best Father
- fun loving, happy, goofy, responsible
- Fun, loving, cheerful, peace maker
- murdered sleeping in his own home
- He is truly missed by so many
- Amazing woman, mom and grandma! went above and beyond for everyone she cared for!
- Aaron was funny goofy loved to make ppl laff and allways allways did anything to help anyone in need
- savage stylish
- FREE SPIRIT
- Fun, Loving, Caring, Outgoing, Selfless,
- hilarious, loyal, laid back, prettiest smile
- loved his baby girl with all he had
- Good friend,Mother and grandmother
- He was murdered
- People broke into home killed him
- amazing! outgoing! and LOVED her girls!
- Extrovert, Creative, Original, Real, Loyal
Some answers were off-topic, as you can see above. There was no prompt for general reactions or comments but that didn’t stop people from entering comments under unrelated prompts. I take this as an indication that our six prompts were too narrowly scoped (and the user interface is a little confusing.)
I found only five cases of vandalism which were not already deleted by readers. One of these vandals actually spent hours over several days posting dozens of answers to random pages. Two other vandals seemed to know the deceased and to harbor spiteful feelings; I expect to see this for murder-suicides in particular. Popular pages will be cleaned up by their readers, but unpopular pages may remain vandalized, so I started personally reviewing all new answers each day. This is a quick task, taking one or two minutes to scan through a list of 100 answers and click any inappropriate ones.
One very popular page was answered entirely in Albanian and Italian. Google Translate does not work very well on this dialect of Albanian. I am unable to effectively and efficiently review these answers, but this particular page has enough readers to moderate itself.
Our original launch included a seventh, multiple choice question to categorize the incident as: suicide, accident, domestic violence, police shooting, workplace shooting, stray bullet, road rage, armed robbery, justifiable self-defense, or “other homicide.” In practice, many people were confused by the definition of each category and the absence of other categories. One mother was extremely upset when she accidentally marked her son’s death as a suicide and couldn’t undo it. Our response was to simply drop this question for now. I suspect that this categorization will have to be handled by our editors.
I am very encouraged by this crowdsourcing experiment and I think the next big step is to move beyond biographical facts and prompt readers to tell paragraph-length stories. Story Corps compiled a list of great questions for remembering a loved one, including prompts like:
- Did you have any favorite jokes _____ used to tell?
- What were _____’s hopes and dreams for the future?
- What is the image of _____ that persists?
We can use the same moderation mechanisms for these longer-form contributions.
I can’t wait to see what our readers have to say!