Crowdsourcing Elizabeth Edwards

While Americans took to the Internet to share personal experiences and prayers for the Edwards family, the media and political world rushed to measure the potential effect on Mr. Edwards' candidacy.
03/26/2007 12:18 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

John and Elizabeth Edwards' decision to continue his presidential bid, despite learning that Ms. Edwards was diagnosed with incurable but treatable cancer, has sparked impassioned discussions across the country and the blogosphere. In fact, Americans have probably discussed the family's choice more than anything else Mr. Edwards has done during the campaign thus far. That is definitely true online, where debates over the couple's choice even inspired The New York Times to break with tradition and use Internet "crowdsource" reporting from its own blog for the very first time.

Last Thursday, there were 2,000 blog entries citing Mr. Edwards, more references than any other day in the past year, according to Technorati. That record-breaking volume was matched by unusually strong reactions to the blog commentaries. An entry about the news on The New York Times political blog, The Caucus, drew over 600 comments, easily quadrupling the typical feedback for the site's most popular entries, with many personal and heartfelt contributions.

Posting a comment from Bosnia, Janet A. Leff relayed how she never halted her international volunteer work during "treatment and recovery" for seven tumors. "Elizabeth should be listened to, and let this couple make their own decisions. At 65 I am still amazed how many uninformed people make decisions about and for cancer patients," she wrote, signing off, "thanks for listening, Janet alive and well in Bosnia i Herzegovina!" Another commenter explained that after battling breast cancer twice, she could understand why Ms. Edwards would want the campaign to continue. "[I] greatly encouraged my husband to pursue hobbies, hoping to break his focus on my health," she wrote.

While Americans took to the Internet to share personal experiences and prayers for the Edwards family, the media and political world rushed to measure the potential effect on Mr. Edwards' candidacy. In a thoughtful front page article this weekend, The Times' Kirk Johnson tried to gauge the mood of a public that had "seized" on the difficult choice the Edwards family made. It is a significant topic, but very difficult to report accurately. Besides cold-calling the phonebook, how do you learn what people really think of the news? How do you find people who have followed the story or care about it? And in a country with two million women who have been treated for breast cancer, how do you learn what survivors think? After all, cancer survivors understand the pain and challenges facing the Edwards family better than anyone, and they are likely to lead public opinion on the rectitude of the family's decision. That's a lot for a reporter to tackle on deadline.

So Mr. Johnson, to his credit, tapped the pool of sources and cancer survivors that had already gathered to discuss the decision on The Times' political blog. Citing the comments section, he concluded that "a major dividing point in how people reacted to the Edwardses' decision was their experience with cancer in themselves or a loved one." Mr. Johnson also called Ms. Leff in Bosnia and related her inspiring story in the article:

Janet Leff, 65, a breast cancer survivor whose cancer had also spread to her bones, said all the talk about what the Edwardses should or should not do is misguided. It is nobody's business but theirs, she said. When her cancer was diagnosed five years ago, she was volunteering as a social worker in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Family members urged her to come home, give up the hard life in a war-ravaged country. She ignored them, she said, and she thinks that is partly why she is still alive. "The two of them know what they both need," said Ms. Leff, who is still in Bosnia-Herzegovina and described herself as a Republican. Ms. Leff agreed to be interviewed by telephone after posting a comment on The Times' blog. "It's not easy on anybody, but it's no time to sit and watch the grass grow," she said. "You have to keep your life going, because whether it gets to the terminal stage or not, you don't know until it's there."

This is the first time a New York Times national article has quoted a source from the paper's own political blog, according to a search on

(The Times quoted a source from its regional blog, The Empire Zone, for the first and only time in January, in a metro article on Internet theories about a "mysterious stench" that had passed through Manhattan.)

It is a significant step, coming at a time when some journalists are experimenting with ways to tap online networks for new sources, information and even primary reporting. This "open source" model, often called "crowdsourcing," can range from swiftly plucking a cancer survivor's story from a newspaper's blog, as Mr. Johnson did, to pooling the collective knowledge of thousands of readers in highly orchestrated long-term projects. (Apart from journalism, Crowdsourcing has pooled amateur labor to produce complex computer programs, research and even art.)

Last week marked the official launch of NYU Professor Jay Rosen's Assignment Zero, an ambitious site that empowers people to research and write stories together, with guidance from a professional editor who has worked for Salon and National Public Radio. The effort, which is funded by Reuters, The MacArthur Foundation, Craigslist's Craig Newmark and Wired Magazine (which coined "crowdsourcing" in its June issue), will test how a "smart crowd" of volunteers can enhance the work of professional journalists.

Even if projects like Assignment Zero do not immediately succeed in fostering collaborative journalism, crowdsourcing is already useful for quoting the public's reactions to current events. The passion, authenticity and strong opinions shooting across the blogosphere provide far more feedback than a reporter can assemble via "person-in- the-street" interviews, which are less likely to pinpoint people who know the given topic anyway. The traditional media may still be reluctant to crowdsource because the tactic seems too new or too self-selected; a common argument is that journalists should stick to their craft and readers don't want to read the notes piling up in blogs and reporters' inboxes. But the Internet will continue to stimulate and enable a more participatory society, further blurring the line between writer and reader, producer and consumer, quotable expert and blog commenter. Journalism will increasingly engage this development, both because it is a reality that accurate reporters should cover, and more practically, it is what the audience wants. Or, as Professor Rosen would say, it's what the "people formerly known as the audience" want.

Ari Melber writes for The Nation, where this web column first appeared. (

UPDATE: From comments on this column at The Nation, here's another personal perspective on the issue:

As a cancer survivor and an employee in one of the world's leading cancer institutes and a volunteer with multiple HIV/AIDS organizations for the past 15+ years, I can only agree with the sentiments stated regarding how one deals with cancer. As with HIV/AIDS, there is a direct correlation to survivorship and mental outlook. In both cases (HIV/AIDS and cancer) the "victims" that live with the highest quality of life are those that refuse to be victimized by their dis-ease. People who continue to take care of the whole person and choose to live a complete life live longer and are much happier. Hey Elizabeth, "you go, Girl"!!! You've got my support.