According to citizen reporter, Johntw: "Steve Jobs was rushed to the ER just a few hours ago after suffering a major heart attack." Apple quickly squashed the story, claiming it to be untrue. Did citizen journalism just fail us? You bet it did.
The report about Steve Jobs appeared on CNN's citizen journalism site, iReport this morning. It read as follows:
Steve Jobs was rushed to the ER just a few hours ago after suffering a major heart attack. I have an insider who tells me that paramedics were called after Steve claimed to be suffering from severe chest pains and shortness of breath. My source has opted to remain anonymous, but he is quite reliable. I haven't seen anything about this anywhere else yet, and as of right now, I have no further information, so I thought this would be a good place to start. If anyone else has more information, please share it.
Silicon Alley Insider then proceeded to follow up, making phone calls to Apple. They were able to reach Katie Cotton, Vice President of Worldwide Communications, who replied saying "It is not true."
This Is Trouble
The question was then raised: do false reports like this damage CNN's credibility? The answer is yes, absolutely. This particular report may even lead to an SEC investigation where CNN will be asked to provide an IP address for the user who posted the story.
The problem here stems from the fact that because CNN has obviously decided not to police or edit the iReport section of their web site, the section is left wide open to "reporters" who want to wreak a little havoc.
But who are these citizen journalists? And how easy is it to become one?
Apparently, it's as easy to become a citizen journalist on CNN as it is to sign up for a new web app from an internet startup, if not easier. The process involves nothing more than filling out a name, screen name, and email address. Adding a phone number is optional and only necessary if you want the story to be considered by CNN. There's a CAPTCHA to prevent bots and an email confirmation link, but thanks to disposable email addresses, those are practically a waste of time these days.
Above: The Registration Form - Congratulations, You're A Journalist!
While most citizen journalists take their responsibility seriously as reporters of actual news, it's apparent that with iReport, just as with any web site on the internet today, there is going to be someone who decides to have a little sick "fun" with it. Who is the reporter by the name of Johntw anyway? As far as we could tell, the only way to get in touch with the reporter is through iReport's built-in messaging system. We sent him an email asking him why he reported this story, but it remains unanswered. In our minds, we're already imagining an adolescent kid who's having a good laugh with their friends this morning over how they just "punked" CNN.
We're interested in seeing how will CNN respond to this muddying of their good name. Will they disassociate themselves a bit from iReport? Or will they just be happy for the pageviews it brought? And will this give pause to other news outlets thinking of launching citizen journalism sites of their own? It's very possible. In these tough economic times, news reports that affect how the markets move are taken very seriously. Had the timing of this report been different, Apple stock could have really suffered. Fortunately, the rebuttal today came out fast enough that it shouldn't have any long-term effects. Next time, we may not be so lucky.