Man posts on interweb. World changes.

Person posts unsubstantiated rumour on the internet regarding Steve Jobs’ health. Citizen Journalism is widely decried as having failed.

Journalist post unsubstantiated rumour in newspaper on daily basis. World keeps turning.

So, citizen journalism failed whatever it was meant to have failed when rumours of Steve Jobs’ heart attack spawned. Somehow this is meant to act as proof that it doesn’t work. Yet, if journalists had their bullshit detector turned on, a la Charles Arthur, who applied a fairly sensible a quick thought analysis to it.

That didn’t stop Silicon Alley Insider from publishing the details of the claim, plus the rather weird claim that “citizen journalism failed its first big test”. Duh, no. Citizen journalism passed its first big test in the London bombings in 2005, when people inside tube trains took videos that showed what conditions were like.

As Jeff Jarvis says, what’s wrong with a good old fashioned phone call to verify a rumour:

But the sanest response to reading a report from an unidentifiable source on Steve Jobs’ health is to get on the phone to Apple and find the truth. Note well that that happened quickly online. When I first heard this “news,” it was not that Jobs was sick but that Apple said he wasn’t sick. The reporters I talked to said that was what they first heard as well. Hmm, the system seems to have worked pretty well — except for fools who sell stock based on baseless rumors. But then, that has happened on Wall Street long before there was an internet.

Breaking news isn’t an easy thing to handle and it’s easy to make mistakes, especially if youre rushing to get something out That’s fine, if they were made in good faith (and especially if the issue takes a while to unravel). But, if possible, it’s not too hard to verify some of the bigger lines.

One of my old news editors always used to say they’d rather be right than first. An interesting position, but one I’ve come to respect. As did a lot of other sources we dealt with. And we’d often get stuff first from them, as they knew we’d be sensible with it and would give it a fair hearing. What goes around…

The point is, while the internet is a great tool for reporting, there’s also an awful lot of bollocks out there. And, as Charles Arthur notes, a first time poster to iReporter perhaps isn’t the most credible of sources.

It’s easy to leap on the ‘let’s all decry the net and citizen journalism’ bandwagon. But, as with anything in real life, a good journalist should have a nose for when somebody’s feeding you a story and when you’re genuinely onto something. The same’s true for those who work in the online medium.

As with any good journalism, you’ll start to see sources or regular posters whose information or blogs add up a lot more than a random post in a random part of the internet. It’s not the first time something like this has happened, and it won’t be the last. And, after all, it’s not as if a few papers haven’t been above being a bit economical with their version of the truth.

I leave the last word with Kerry, who sums things up nicely:

 Setting my own cynicism aside though I can’t agree that just because one system isn’t perfect, we should accept the same foibles in another similar system.

Rather shouldn’t we be refuse to accept poor journalism, be it professional or amateur? If the third estate is to rise and take the place of the fourth then shouldn’t it be a better replacement, not a case of the same tat but different peddlers?


1 Response to “Man posts on interweb. World changes.”

  1. 1 Rachel Nixon October 10, 2008 at 5:46 am

    Hi Gary
    Thanks for the interesting post.
    While not underestimating the seriousness of the matter in hand, I can’t help feeling that posts that claimed “citizen journalism has failed” missed the point.

    The issue surely was that people treated an unsubstantiated report on an unvetted site in the same way as if it had come from a professionally-edited news outlet. Participatory media sites are not run in the same way as established news sites – and they’re not intended to be. The problem in this case was that people acted on the basis of what was, as you say, an unsubstantiated rumour without bothering to verify the facts.

    It’s interesting to see that iReport has now posted a prominent disclaimer on its homepage advising users to “Take Note!”, adding that stories submitted by users are not edited, fact-checked or screened before they post.

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October 2008
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Yes, this is my name. And my email. Use it wisely or you're not getting a biscuit with your tea: garyllewellynandrews [at] gmail [dot] com

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