Could citizen journalism learn something from eBay?

Take any complex and controversial news story published online — today’s big headline on the final push to enact health care reform is a good example — and you’ll stumble across dozens if not hundreds of strong opinions in the comments section whether you’re getting the story from CNN, The Washington Post or any other reputable news source.

Stimulating debate, and providing a diversity of opinions, is a hallmark of good journalism. But even the most passionate advocate of “citizen journalism” is hard pressed to give credibility to story comments, many of which are anonymous screeds with few if any facts conveyed.

But what if we could legitimately evaluate the credibility of these posters beyond just clicking a “like” or “recommend” button? Those options merely state how many people agree with the opinion, not whether the information presented by that poster is accurate and truthful.

Such a system of evaluating credibility among thousands of posters seems impossible, but it’s already in place at any successful online auction site. Whether you shop for goods at an all-purpose auction site like eBay or a niche site like Etsy, an integral part of the process is evaluating the reputation of each seller. Without a system that’s reliable in determining which users can be trusted, the entire business model of brokering online sales falls apart.

While far from perfect, these systems take into account evaluations from every buyer on the site and compile them into algorithms that flag sellers with poor reviews while rewarding those who deal honestly. It relies heavily on user feedback of course, but since people are putting up their own money to participate in online auctions, they’re usually more than happy to weigh in on the merits (or lack thereof) of a specific seller.

Contrast this approach with the free-for-all that passes for discussion in the comments section of most important news stories. Outrageous claims are made alongside some more thoughtful observations, all mixed together in a format that offers no insight to which commentators are reliable sources.

For starters, news sites could at least report how many times a user has posted a comment or how often he/she has been tagged for abuse. The truly innovative could take a page out of eBay’s playbook and devise a way to credibly evaluate each poster. That system has proven it can build up trust to pay a complete stranger online. Maybe it can also build up trust in the credibility of citizen journalism.

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