Sunday, October 5, 2008

Trouble on the citizen journalism front

Readers of this blog would know that the emerging area of citizen journalism has been an ongoing interest of mine. The ARC Linkage grant that I have been involved in, with partners including SBS, On Line Opinion and Cisco Systems, developed the youdecide2007 site around the 2007 Australian Federal election. My colleagues Axel Bruns, Jason Wilson and Barry Saunders have also been reporting on citizen journalism initiatives on the Gatewatching site housed at ABC Online.

It is interesting to note this story about problems faced by CNN with its iReport user-generated news site, and its role in the spreading of false rumours of Steve Jobs' death that led to a sharp fall in Apple's share price on Friday October 3.

An iReport story posted by a "Johntw" at around 9 a.m. EDT with the headline "Steve Jobs rushed to ER following severe heart attack" entered the Internet rumor mill, landing on news site and spawning dozens of nervous postings on micro-blogging site By 9:25 am, the widely read online magazine Silicon Alley Insider had picked up the item.

Apple stock dropped with incredible speed on the strength of the rumor. The company's shares fell to $95.41 from $105.27 between 9:40 and 9:52 a.m. - 9 percent - before Apple denied the report. After describing the content as fraudulent, CNN confirmed Friday that a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation is under way in regard to the "citizen blogger" post, which caused a $9 billion loss in Apple shares before the post was debunked. The posting on iReport was "not vetted or reported by CNN journalists," according to a CNN statement.

The Jobs incident was the second time in a week that mainstream media organizations have been embarrassed by their online citizen journalism arms - sparking debate about the accuracy of reports from these Web sites and showing how it takes only a few minutes for a scurrilous rumor, placed on a site without sufficient editorial checks, to inflict damage.

Citizen journalism arises at the intersection of the new possibilities for participation from the Internet, the scope for citizen reporters to generate new stories and new angles on news, and the financial cries of traditional news media outlets that are leading to a lashing of costs in nws rooms throughout the world:

As interactivity and openness have become prized qualities in the new media landscape - and as traditional reporting jobs have been eliminated due to dwindling budgets - print, online and television news organizations have rushed to feature user-generated content. In addition to CBS and CNN, Fox News and the Associated Press have iPhone applications that allow users to submit images.

Over the past year, citizen journalists have been praised for breaking news and providing real-time documentation of major events. Blogger Mayhill Fowler, for instance, contributing to the political citizen journalism project Off the Bus, made headlines when she recorded an April speech by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in which he told a San Francisco audience that "bitter" small-town Americans "cling to guns or religion."

CNN started iReport in August 2006 as part of its online news operation, and initially every submission was vetted by a CNN producer before it appeared online or on television. The "game changer" moment, according to CNN spokeswoman Jennifer Martin, came in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting in April 2007, when the network got cell phone video footage from a student who witnessed the shooting.

Traffic on iReport surged, and CNN decided to make iReport an independent site. CNN employs a moderation company but does not fact-check items - mostly, it is the job of iReport users themselves to weed out erroneous or inappropriate material. Only the submissions that go on the CNN Web site or cable channel are seen by CNN staff. Martin said no changes would be made to iReport because of the Jobs incident.

"It's an extremely important community to us," she said, noting that in September the site received 21,000 submissions.

As Jason Wilson and I noted in our recent paper on citizen journalism, the idea that it is a low-cost (or indeed no-cost) way of getting 'scoops' from the general public ignores the four types of work that are critical to new forms of networked journalism:
  1. Content work
  2. Networking
  3. Community work
  4. Tech-work

No comments: