At CNN’s iReport.com, a “citizen journalist” calling himself “Johntw” posted a report that Steve Jobs had been rushed to the ER following a heart attack. Word spread to and beyond Digg, across Twitter. Apple stock dropped quickly, a $9 billion loss based on the rumor. Though iReport posts aren’t vetted, the CNN association probably lent credibility to the report. [Link]
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.
So what’s the cure? A dozen years ago Bob Anderson and I were talking about the emerging new media ecology and the question of information authority in that context. We figured media literacy should be taught alongside reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. Support critical thinking, not censorship or authoritarian structures for distributing information.
Education isn’t always enough, sometimes you really do need moderators, hopefully with a light touch. The SFGate story linked above says how sexually explicit photos were posted at CBS’mobile phone application site, after which CBS promised “to redouble its efforts to police content.” A moderator had quickly removed the photos. Some might argue that photos should be screened before they’re posted, and some sites would do it that way, but that’s a daunting task, especially where you may have thousands of posts, and it’s not in the spirit of the many-to-many mediasphere. CNN does have moderators for iReport, but they’re not checking facts… “mostly, it is the job of iReport users themselves to weed out erroneous or inappropriate material.” That’s the social media way – the “vetting” is crowdsourced, and the reader must read critically, never assuming that the “news source” is correct. I would argue that’s always been the case, even with the best journalists. I’ve never been close to a news story that wasn’t wrong in some of the particulars, at least from my perspective. And that’s part of the problem – perspectives and interpretations differ. That’s why I left journalism behind – when I was in journalism school, it seemed pretty clear that it would be hard to tell the truth. Only a few gonzo journalists, a la Hunter Thompson, realized they, and their biases, had to be transparent within the reporting…