False Jobs Post Highlights Citizen Journalism Perils

Friday's false report on CNN's iReport site that Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs had suffered a heart attack is a strong example of potential pitfalls posed by so-called citizen journalists.

The report prompted a temporary 10% tumble in the company's stock price before Apple moved quickly the quash the report that Jobs had been hospitalized for chest pains and shortness of breath. Though CNN quickly yanked the report from the Web, the citizen journalist posting the phony report to the CNN site that allows any Internet user to report news had already done the damage.

The stock rebounded only after the share price fell below $100 for the first time since May 2007.

Calls to Turner Broadcasting and CNN parent Time Warner were not returned.

While many news sites using citizen journalists filter comments or posts from citizen before they go live, CNN does not, said Ellyn Angelotti, interactivity editor and adjunct faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists and journalist professors.

The main goal of CNN iReport "is to really empower citizens to be the reporters," she said Friday. "They don't want to be that filter the way that some news organizations feel is important. Citizen journalists can't exist without real journalists out there to fact check and provide sense out of these flood of information."

She added that other breaking news stories have been uncovered first by updates to Wikipedia or Twitter messages. While this story originated on a CNN site, she added that CNN has distinguished between the iReport and official CNN reporting.

"[On iReport] they are saying this person reported it and they are a CNN iReporter, but what that means is they are a citizen journalist, and this is information that is coming from the community and not something that we have had a chance to verify through our news sources," Angelotti said.

Erick Schonfeld, a blogger at TechCrunch, said that this incident shows that iReport news carries more weight than a Twitter microblog or other blog posts because it is on a CNN site.

"That may be purely because it gets distributed more broadly," he added. "It could also be because people tend to believe what they read on CNN-branded sites. There needs to be a better truth filter on iReport and other sites that allow the anonymous reporting of news. A better reputation system for contributors would help."

Adam Ostrow, a blogger at Mashable noted that Internet rumors concerning the stock market have been popping up long before those posting them were called "citizen journalists."

"I think this is mainly a special circumstance - concerns about Jobs' health have been in the news for months, and any indication that it is moving in one direction or the other has had implications for Apple's shares," he noted. "Further, the premise of iReport is that the best news makes it on-air to CNN (presumably after being verified by professional journalists) [and] that didn't seem to happen here. News about public companies is obviously a delicate subject, but I would hardly call this blunder the beginning of the end for citizen journalism."

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