Why Citizen Journalism Doesn’t Work

Like ad-supported free PCs and most spam blockers, the concept of "citizen journalism" - where everyday folks report on the news - doesn't work, and it never will. When someone announced that Steve Jobs suffered a heart attack on the iReport portal at CNN, Apple stock plunged 10 percent. Yet, because there is no fact-checking whatsoever, and the CNN brand implies reliability, some sites took the report semi-seriously.

The Web is many things - a vast collection of personal opinions, Web domains for pharmaceutical companies, news sites with reviews and commentary, e-commerce portals, and a lot of unmentionable Web sites that are NSFYM (that's: not safe for your marriage). It is definitely not a place for citizen journalism, where anyone can pretty much make up the news as they go along. I think the SEC agrees with me on this.

Citizen journalism has its place, though. Those on-the-scene videos of rampaging tornadoes in Fargo and "news of the weird" robberies would not exist if it weren't for citizen journalists. The professional reporters can't be everywhere. I'm all for an "open source" mentality when it comes to digging up the facts - that's what makes a site like The Smoking Gun so valuable. I see citizen journalism as part of the process in investigating a story, but not a replacement for real journalism.

For one thing, the everyday person doesn't have the resources to fact-check a story. They could try, I suppose. If the person who posted about Steve Jobs having a heart attack had contacted Apple PR, when their e-mail address is, say, thegoofydude@hotmail.com and they sign off on their e-mails with a quote from the show Firefly and that's it, Apple PR will summarily trash it. I know from personal experience, because they seem to ignore most of my e-mails, and I actually work as a reporter for a living. There are just too many "bloggers in their basement" claiming to be journalists.

Wired posted a blog recently explaining their process in creating an article. I say "creating" because it's a lot more than just writing. There are hundreds of steps involved. Fact-checking is not as thorough for online reports, but it is still part of the process. No one at Wired.com is going to post that Steve Jobs had a heart attack before they thoroughly check the facts, and likely ask the man himself.

Now, I do have to include this caveat. Anyone who believes a story at iReport, where it is obvious from the name and from the site itself that the reports are from readers, is probably not paying attention. Each of us needs to do an "internal fact check" - meaning, we should visit at least one other reputable source, such as the New York Times (er, which is mostly accurate), to confirm a story. I can't imagine someone seeing an iReport and selling their shares in Apple, but it seems that's exactly what happened.

I guess investing is a bit like blogging: being the first to know is sometimes more important than being intelligent about it. Okay, please post your comments now!

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