Open source religion reporting works

open sourceDavid Crumm, the Detroit Free Press religion writer, had the enviable task of coordinating a rather significant open-source religion journalism project that involved "forty strangers in a virtual room" talking about their faith. Wired News, a collaborator in the project, carried a summary story on July 12 that was part of a larger open source project, Assignment Zero. According to the piece, the diverse set of 40 writers, or sources on the religion team, did three waves of reporting, or discussion, and after each Crumm would compose "an evolving story" that compiled the various thoughts and ideas put forth. Those summaries can be found here.

Perhaps what is most interesting about the results of this project is what is not there, rather than what is discussed. Politics hardly comes up, and neither do denominational debates. Here's how Crumm described the project in his summary piece:

What, exactly, is open source religion? It's the cutting edge of individual spirituality that's thriving outside the walls of organized religion. It's a historic shift in power and authority from religious leadership to the consumer-oriented adherents of religious movements.

In other words, the traditional influences on religion news are removed -- the denominations and political groups -- and the gaps are filled by Crumm's sources.

By its very nature the project is introspective and engages in self-criticism that one hardly sees in more established publications. In fact the members addressed the major criticisms I thought I could make of this project before I plowed through the actual series:

That's the nearly universal motive that attracted the participants -- who took pains to point out that they're hardly a random cross section of the U.S. population.

But what emerged from the discussions is strong evidence that there's real energy behind open source religion: People are eager to express their most sacred insights within emerging grassroots crowds that are forming around the world.

One of the best areas the project addresses is the growing number of prominent atheist thinkers out there. A major finding of the project -- what I would define as the "news" -- came from a contribution of a professional:

There's solid sociological data behind this observation. It comes from multiple waves of World Values Surveys, analyzed by University of Michigan sociologist Wayne E. Baker, who also joined our forum. Baker wrote about this in his 2006 book, "America's Crisis of Values: Reality and Perception." As Baker sorted out the data, he showed that religious values are very strong and widespread across America. Americans rank with traditionalist countries around the world, places like Pakistan, in the strength of our religious values. But Americans also are almost off the chart in another powerful value -- our desire for individual self-expression. (We rank with Scandinavia on that scale.)

While I started reviewing this project skeptically, I found that it worked amazingly well in uncovering compelling wrinkles in the religion landscape. The story unfolded over the course of weeks rather than hours. But isn't that the amount of time reporters usually take for a significant in-depth look at a subject? The natural next question is if this could be the future of religion journalism.

A carefully researched, thorough report on a subject involves talking to a diverse set of sources who are experts in the subject matter. Could journalists do this in a more open manner that results in better results? Possibly.

Key challenges that must be avoided include the navel-gazing that typically happens when sources are given a wide platform and porous filters, and an obsession with the "open source" process rather than simply getting on with the work.

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