How a new form of journalism investigated a gun research
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,
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
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
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.
Julian Sanchez is a writer and weblogger living in