Should Citizen Journalism Be Placed Under Citizen’s Arrest?

When does an iReport give CNN’s credibility a black eye? When its citizen “journalism” about a Steve Jobs heart attack turns out to be phony.

It takes a lot during this Autumn of the Economic Meltdown for an individual company’s stock woes to break out from the pack, but an Oct. 3 iReport on claiming that Apple’s CEO had been rushed to a hospital after suffering a serious heart attack did the trick.

Another news Web site, Silicon Alley Insider, ran with the story while waiting for callbacks from Cupertino and Atlanta. Apple’s stock dropped, an Apple spokesperson denied the report and the Apple faithful breathed a sigh of iRelief. The stock came back up but still closed down for the day.

Unwelcome Attention

Meanwhile, an iReporter with the online handle of “johntw” now has the attention of Securities and Exchange Commission investigators.

This story has already zipped its way through the mainstream media, the blogosphere and on journalism Web sites with all the speed of an unsourced rumor, so I won’t dwell too much on the gory details. Suffice to say there’s been plenty of navel-gazing among the digerati, plenty of angry comments from Apple shareholders on message boards and plenty of who-cares, our-entire-economy-is-cratering sentiment.

But as a former CNN employee who was there when the iReport made its debut in the summer of 2006, I wanted to weigh in with my take on this, for whatever it’s worth: CNN will start vetting ALL iReports more carefully. It may be a hassle and colossal time-suck to do it, and the company certainly won’t make a big deal about it, but it will do it. Because in the end, the people in charge of the network really do care about credibility, despite some evidence to the contrary (cough, Lou Dobbs, cough).

A Brief History of Citizen Journalism

When I was working as an anchor/reporter in Dallas in the early-to-mid-90s and somebody sent amateur video to our station of a tornado ripping across the North Texas prairie, we didn’t call it citizen journalism. We called it “amateur video of a tornado ripping across the North Texas prairie.”

Okay, so “citizen journalism” is a tad catchier. Hopefully, the point is taken: Whether it’s video from a 1990s-era camera, or a 21st-century cell phone camera, the concept of citizens untrained in journalism helping those of us officially tasked with writing the first draft of history has been around for a while.

As I’ve written before in this column, when CNN anchor Rick Sanchez turns to Twitter or MySpace to get comments or questions from viewers, it’s all of a piece with dead-tree letters to the editor or talk radio phone-ins from listeners; it’s speed-of-thought faster, certainly, but in the end, no more illuminating.

Before you label me as some old-school journalism triceratops railing against the digital tide … not so fast, FacebookFace. I embraced the new media opportunities I had while at CNN. I loved blogging and podcasting. And as I said before, I was anchoring at Headline News when the iReport became an official weapon in CNN’s journalistic bandolier and believed they added an interesting new angle to the picture. Spot news is where an iReporter does his or her most important work; hurricanes, blizzards, crime scenes, terrorist attacks. Cell phone photos of the 2005 London transit bombings added to the full picture of a very sad day in British history.

I left Headline News in mid-April 2007. I hadn’t been gone from CNN Center for a week before the Virginia Tech shootings galvanized the nation, aided by a student’s chilling cell phone video of police arriving on campus just as Seung-Hui Cho’s gunfire echoed from inside a nearby building.

I can remember having discussions with other HLN anchors about the pros and cons of iReports. The biggest fear spoken of at the time was that some iReporter was going to get him or herself killed chasing a tornado. What about compensation? we wondered. At what point do iReporters with compelling video start demanding payment or seeking the highest bidder among cable networks? A network can say it won’t pay for news, but with ratings pressures reaching critical mass, how long before executives start inadvertently quoting “Ghostbuster” Peter Venkman, saying not paying iReporters is “more of a guideline than a rule?”

How to Build the Best iReporter Team on Television

One of the more laughable rationalizations for the Steve Jobs hoax can be found, naturally, on the iReport blog. Once again, the “wisdom of the crowds” meme gets a workout in the wrong setting:

“We do want to make one thing very clear: when you, the community, saw a story that you didn’t think measured up, you spoke up loud and clear. One of the first comments was from davejohnson who posted Apple’s denial: ‘Apple says that the rumor is untrue.’ Based on this and other community feedback, removed the story from the site. That’s how works: it’s a user-generated site that invites anyone with a story to share it. Once it’s here, the passionate community decides what happens next.”

This makes absolutely no apologies for the damage that was done to either Apple stock or CNN’s brand while the story was on the site. Relying on the community to police itself for comment trolls is one thing; asking them to play managing editor is another. And sorry, caveats on the site that “CNN makes no guarantees about the content or the coverage on!” don’t impart journalistic absolution, even with the exclamation point.

Speaking of comments: the response to Silicon Alley Insider’s explanation for going with the story before getting responses from Apple or CNN has been overwhelmingly negative.

I believe in using the new digital tools to help journalists tell a story. I’m also a big fan of traditional journalism values like objectivity and attribution. There’s already a school of thought within the news business to combine these worlds so you can create the next generation of newsgatherers. The advice to CNN with iReport is to follow the example of Ronald Reagan, another Great Communicator: Trust, but verify.

Just because we now inhabit an all-news, all-the-time universe is no excuse to let CNN morph into the Most Distrusted Name in News.

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