Citizen journalism fail? I don’t think so

October 6, 2008

Much is being made of a false rumor about Steve Jobs’s health that started as a “user generated news item” on CNN’s iReport.com site.

Basically, someone using the handle “Johntw” claimed that Jobs had suffered a heart attack in an iReport posting around 9am on Friday morning. By 10am, when Apple rebuffed the claim, the Cupertino, CA firm’s stock had dropped almost 10% – or $9 Billion in shares.

What if we just gave them all laptops?

Maybe if we just gave them all laptops... (by Olivander cc-by-nc-sa)

Predictably, the papers and news services reporting on the incident have rushed in to proclaim this merely another sad example of “the downside” (SF Chron) of “citizen journalism gone awry“(Bloomberg).

Even NYU Professor/Blogger/Media-studies-guru Jay Rosen chided CNN for their naivete, and is quoted by the SF Chronicle:

“I think if you are going to put closed and open systems under one brand, then you have to try to organize the open part so that it does not embarrass you…What the branded news companies cannot do is … create a low-cost open-gate ‘play area,’ where the citizens can do their thing and no one carefully watches over it, cultivates it, takes responsibility for building it or for steadily improving the quality of it.”

Rosen makes a great point – CNN should watch where it places its brand as it struggles to understand the shifting sands of the participatory web.

However, the fatal flaw in the rest of the coverage is that the authors and editors assume responsibility for the incident should be directed at CNN and it’s iReport platform. The sad truth of the matter is that none of the folks who repeated the rumor – and here I’m especially thinking of so-called industry experts such as Silicon Alley Insider’s Henry Blodget, who chose to broadcast the misinformation about Jobs on his influential blog – took the time to call a hospital or consider the very real possibility that information submitted to iReport just might be inaccurate.

Clearly, the fact that iReport uses the CNN brand likely facilitated the rumor’s credibility, but how does that make CNN responsible for the actions of an idiotic, gullible, or malicious user?

Blodget himself had the chutzpah to write, “‘citizen journalism’ apparently just failed its first significant test.”

To say that CNN or “Citizen Journalism” bears the blame for something as irresponsible as Blodget did is about as reasonable as saying Wikipedia is bad because college kids think everything on it is True.

It’s the users of iReport and Wikipedia who need re-educating, not the other way around.

Until information consumers – expert stock-pickers, journalists, and so-called everyday folks who get their news online – learn how to treat what they read with an appropriate level of critical skepticism, it doesn’t matter whether you have the editorial staff of the NY Times or an army of 10,000 monkeys writing the stories. There is always a risk that you will read something false.

If you read a user-contributed news item then make the decision to act on that information contained in that story, the institution of so-called citizen journalism is not at fault, you are.

Am I being overly-defensive here? Perhaps. Nevertheless, I’d like to think the point stands: when the corporate media blows a story they (rightfully) catch hell for it, but nobody suggests that the institution of professional journalism is to blame. Instead, we quibble about whether The New York Times should have fired Judith Miller sooner, or hired an ombudsman before the WMD mess and Colin Powell’s speech at the UN.

So-called citizen journalists and large-scale distributed news sites complement existing media institutions in numerous and valuable ways.

Indeed, the extent to which reputable news sources such as the NYT failed to perform the traditional role of the 4th Estate during the lead-up to the current War in Iraq is exactly what motivated some of the most important bloggers to jump into the fray.

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