A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.
~Mark Twain.

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.

About the Author

I am a Freelance Technology Journalist, blogger, FierceContentManagement editor and Contributing Editor at EContent Magazine. I have been writing about technology since 1988 and publishing credits include InsideCRM, CIO.com, Streaming Media Magazine, eWeek, BusinessWeek SmallBiz and Network World. I have also written White Papers, documentation and training for a variety of corporate clients, big and small. I co-founded [url]www.socmedia101.com[/url] in 2009 and contributes regularly to its content. You can learn more by visiting my blog, by Ron Miller at [URL]http://byronmiller.typepad.com[/url].

I won an Apex Award for Publications Excellence in Feature Writing in 2006, 2007 and 2008.

You can subscribe to my DaniWeb blog with Feedburner by following this link: [url= http://feeds.feedburner.com/TechTreasures]My feedburner subscription link[/url]

Note that the first sentence should read, an untrue rumor began circulating that Apple CEO *Steve Jobs* had...

My apologies. This systems shuts down editing after 30 minutes so there is no way for me to fix it.

The problem with citizen journalists (and I speak with vested interests as a paid one, on this site and elsewhere) is that there's nobody editing their posts when they blog. This is OK as long as they understand they're operating under the same constraints as the paid variety - if they get caught spreading untrue, share-sensitive lies by the SEC, that's going to be serious. So many of them think the fact that they're not professional makes them immune from this, or from the need to fact check, or from libel laws.

My guess is that whether it's on this occasion or another, sometime there's going to be a substantial test case that will prove once and for all that citizen journalists can be held to account for what they say just as I can. At that stage it'll be interesting to see how many of them bail out.

Well I think this one is that case, Guy. From what I've read, this guy is in serious trouble. As I say, anyone who uses the title journalist, regardless of whether they put the word citizen in front of it is still subject to the same rules. By the way, I think your posts qualify you to remove the citizen designation.