The Mystery of Mary Rosh: How a New Form of Journalism Investigated a Gun Research Riddle. (Columns)

By Sanchez, Julian | Reason, May 2003 | Go to article overview

The Mystery of Mary Rosh: How a New Form of Journalism Investigated a Gun Research Riddle. (Columns)


Sanchez, Julian, Reason


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 6o 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, setup 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.

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