As a member of the classically trained "old media" -- even if I write for a screen instead of on a dead tree -- I'm a major skeptic of this whole "citizen journalism" phenomenon. Yes, blogs are interesting. Yes, sometimes they can provide valuable muckraking and fact-checking services that the big scary MSM doesn't get. But, frankly, I'm with David Simon (creator of HBO's "The Wire") and Al Tompkins, broadcast/online group leader at the Poynter Institute (a journalism think tank), who both deplore the term and concept of "citizen journalist."
"The frame 'citizen journalism' itself is a little on the toxic side for me," Tompkins told PC World. "Can you go down to the bus stop and talk to a 'citizen physician'? If I work on my garbage disposal, am I a 'citizen plumber'? The whole notion that anybody can be a journalist I think is wrong-minded, because journalism as a craft does mean something. It actually embodies a conduct and a standard of truth-telling that I think still are important."
That's why, for me, this recent episode of Apple's stock tanking and then rebounding on the alleged report that Apple CEO had had a heart attack is fairly troublesome. CNN has this site, iReport.com, which is advertised both online and on the television network. But, as CNN spokeswoman Jennifer Martin told me, it's completely separate from the site, and CNN doesn't control what does or doesn't go on the site. But that being said, the mothership is free to pilfer whatever they want, vet it, and put the CNN stamp of approval on it. Come on, guys, you can't have it both ways.
And in the case of what happened on Friday, the unvetted post was live for about 12 minutes before CNN disabled the account and took down the post. Martin says the site worked as it was supposed to, in the sense that the community leaders pulled the article, which contained an anonymous quote about Steve Jobs that was totally untrue.
However, the problem with that, as Wired.com's Epicenter points out:
[Since] information seeded on the internet (to say nothing of one of the internet's premiere news brands) can seep into the markets virtually instantaneously, 12 minutes is an eternity during which time anybody with certain knowledge of the truth or falsity of the report could, you will pardon the expression, make a killing.
To boot, the subject of Jobs' health is exactly the sort of front-burner item that would tend to catch fire. Plus, Apple stock has been especially tormented lately, even given the downward spiral of the broad market, and has been trading at 52-week lows.
So it seems quite likely that someone abused iReport.com to perpetrate a false rumor as a way to manipulate the market and, possibly, says Epicenter, could face jail time. CNN has turned over some information to the SEC about this poster (likely an IP address and maybe his/her e-mail), but isn't saying what.
Fortune's Philip Elmer-DeWitt takes a much more hesitant view, noting:
But it's not at all clear -- especially with everything else that's going on in the market -- that [SEC chairman Christopher] Cox has the resources to catch the thousands of Internet day traders who try to work this con every day of the week.
Or the teeth to make any punishments stick.
David Cohn, a buddy, and the editor of NewAssignment.net and Spot.us, two experiments in new types of online journalism, suggests that what CNN needs to do is have more scrutiny over even the amateur stuff, lest it run amok, as it did in this case.
"A big part of this is media-literacy," Cohn wrote me in an e-mail. "Citizen journalism is still relatively new and it's a very powerful and overall positive force in how we stay informed as a society. That said -- we need to create the media literacy awareness so that as a society we can distinguish it easily from vetted journalism. I think that's a big part of the problem. CNN's iReport is completely unfiltered. There are other citizen journalism sites that do have filters 'pro-am' [professional-amateur]. There is a chance that if this report had been filed on a pro-am site, it would have gone through a verification period that would have quelled this whole thing."
Color me even more skeptical. Given that in the last two years, two major "citizen journalism" initiatives have gone under, Dan Gillmor's Bayosphere and most recently, OhMyNews Japan, I'm not convinced that this trend is good for journalists, or for citizens. Still, I applaud Cohn and others for trying.