On Friday, like clockwork, I got calls from three reporters asking me to defend citizen journalism (again) after its latest mortal sin against the gods of journalism: the report/rumor/lie on CNN’s iReport that Apple’s Steve Jobs had been rushed to the hospital with a heart attack, which spread and sent the company’s share’s diving.
Every time so-called citizen journalism muffs one, I get such calls, as if to say, look what your bratty kid is up to now. Funny, I don’t get them – as a journalist – every time a reporter messes up.
I told these reporters that they were on the tail of the wrong story. This may not be about citizen journalism at all. It may be about someone trying to game Apple stock and using, nefariously, whatever tools were available. I also told them that anyone who sold their stock on the basis of a pseudonymous post on the web was a fool who deserved what they got (are these the same people who invested in subprime mortgages?).
The proper response to this is to ask what our response should be, not to decry all “citizen journalism” because of this.
First, we need to recognize that life is messy. The idea that we could package the world neatly in a box with a bow on top is a vestige of the old means of production and distribution of news: tightly controlled with the limitation-turned-luxury of time.
Ever since the creation of 24-hour cable news, we have lost that luxury of time. Mistakes – let alone rumors and lies – go out live and the public has to learn to judge the news more skeptically. The truth is, they always have. But now rather than ignoring their skepticism, we need to encourage it and educate people to think this way. Call it media literacy. That is one proper response.
Another response from media is that we have to get better at giving caveats. As news rushes by, it is important that we make it clear what is and isn’t confirmed. We thought we were in the business of saying what we know in the news. But we’re more in the business of saying what we don’t know. I’ve often quoted Nick Denton’s definition of what we bloggers call “half-baked posts.” They say to our readers: “Here’s what we know. Here’s what we don’t know. What do you know?”
Note well that CNN iReport issues a blanket caveat on everything it “reports” — hell, this is its tagline and slogan: “Unfiltered. Unedited. News.” Maybe that last word is a problem, but then iReport has had lots of news, including video from the scene of the Virginia Tech massacre. CNN president Jonathan Klein said at a McGraw-Hill conference some months ago that the point of iReport was to have a place to accept stuff from citizens and witnesses that wasn’t CNN. Only that which is vetted, he said, goes up under the CNN brand. But, of course, iReport is near the CNN brand.
It may be a mistake for news organizations to keep begging people to send them stuff. That’s the way they think — centralized, controlling, exclusive. But the better structure may be for journalists to curate the best of what is out on the web. Rather than playing wack-a-mole on the occasional mistake/rumor/lie sent it, editors would better serve if they found the best content anywhere, not just among that which was sent to them.
When the web, like TV, goes live (I can broadcast live today from my Nokia phone over Qik.com), news organizations will have no choice but to find and point to others’ content elsewhere because there won’t be time to send it in.
But the sanest response to reading a report from an unidentifiable source on Steve Jobs’ health is to get on the phone to Apple and find the truth. Note well that that happened quickly online. When I first heard this “news,” it was not that Jobs was sick but that Apple said he wasn’t sick. The reporters I talked to said that was what they first heard as well. Hmm, the system seems to have worked pretty well — except for fools who sell stock based on baseless rumors. But then, that has happened on Wall Street long before there was an internet.
The web, as it turns out, is almost as fast at spreading truth as it as at spreading rumors.
Is this a story of citizen journalism and its failings or of professional journalism and its jealousies?
(Crossposted at Comment is Free)