A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.
This week we learned what can happen when Citizen Journalism runs amok when an untrue rumor began circulating that Apple CEO had suffered a severe heart attack. As soon as the original report hit the CNN Citizen Journalism site, iReport, the rumor spread like wild fire around the internet. Within the hour, however, some professional journalists made some phone calls and learned it wasn't true--Jobs was fine. The SEC is now investigating the citizen journalist who wrote the piece--who goes by the name Johntw--and John is quickly learning that being a journalist carries with it some grave responsibilities. As my colleague Ryan Satterfield writes in his DaniWeb blog, you have to check your facts. (Interesting side note: Johntw's profile has been removed from iReport.)
Unfiltered and Unedited
The site that published the rumor is billed as 'Unedited, Unfiltered News.' Maybe that was part of the problem. Before I go too far, I have to say that I'm a huge fan of Citizen Journalism. I believe that that blogs and publishing outlets that give citizens a way to report on the world around them help promote democracy and a more informed society, but like any concept, it has its pros and cons. Unedited news can in fact result in serious consequences as we have learned. It's one thing to send photos of a fire in your neighborhood that you shot before any media got there. It's another altogether to print a rumor that can have devastating financial consequences on the value of a company's stock, especially one whose image is so closely tied to its leader as Jobs is to Apple.
You Take on the Role, You Take on the Responsibility
One thing the citizen journalist who wrote that piece, and might have an SEC agent knocking on his door on Monday morning, is probably figuring out right about now, is that when you publish an article, no matter who you are, it takes on a certain weight and in the age of the internet can take on a life of its own rather quickly. That means that the writer could be responsible for the fall-out that comes from the seemingly innocent act of posting a rumor someone has passed onto them, probably for the thrill of being associated with getting the scoop and beating the mainstream media to the punch (unless of course it turns out he was trying to manipulate the stock price, but for the sake of argument let's assume he wasn't).
But there's also something to be said for following up first, and moving forward citizen journalists need to understand this lesson most of all. There's a responsibility that comes with being a journalist, citizen or otherwise, to make every effort to make sure (or at least try to find out) if what you're publishing is true. Picking up the phone could certainly help. I know that doesn't always happen with so-called pros these days, and mistakes certainly happen in filtered and edited publications, but when the end result is a stock price plunge in what was already a bad week on Wall St, you can begin to see how the role and the responsibility suddenly become inextricably intertwined.
Do Citizen Journalists Need a Filter?
I think it's important to be careful not to overreact to this incident. One mistake in my view does not damn the entire system of Citizen Journalism. Even though it's entirely likely that more stories like the one on Friday will be published in the future, I still believe in the promise of Citizen Journalism, but citizen journalists and the sites that sponsor them have to be very careful that they understand that what they publish sometimes carries more influence than the writer or site might have ever imagined, and writers need to clearly understand this before something really bad happens or a citizen writer ends up in jail wondering what the heck happened.