Drawbacks of Citizen Journalism

Case Study: The Power of Citizen Journalism Demonstrates the Need for Standards

The field of citizen journalism has exploded in recent years, due in large part to technological advances. There are a variety of forums available for citizens to contribute news and for preofssional journalists to draw news from. The problem with this seemingly efficient and enhanced news system lies in how much credibility to afford the citizens' contributions. Media outlets worldwide have a varitey of ways they can present citizen journalism. They must constantly keep in mind how their presentation and framing of information affects how consumers of news interpret that information.

On October 3, 2008, news outlets in the United States showed just how important the presentation of citizen journalism is. A user on CNN's citizen journalism platform, iReport, posted that Steve Jobs, founder and CEO of Apple, "was rushed to the ER after suffering a major heart attack."

A variety of news sources picked up the story. Some, such as Gawker (an online breaking-news site), reported it with a healthy degree of skepticism, but other news outles presented the information as credible, causing a drop in Apple's stock price according to CNET.com.

The post appeared on iReport early in the morning Eastern time (USA). By 10a.m. Eastern time/ 7a.m. Pacific time, according to CNET.com, the stock had dropped. Because of how early the information was posted, Apple’s California offices were not yet open to declare the report false. Business Insider reported that the stock did later that day recover from its 5.4% drop after the information was revealed to be untrue.

If the Jobs’ rumor had been posted to a less prestigious message board somewhere else in cyberspace, it may not have been taken as seriously as it was. Because iReport is associated with CNN, and because of the context in which the user-generated content was presented, other news outlets afforded the post the credibility that comes with being associated with CNN. When news outlets such as CNET.com (a popular and respected American technology site) and the Silicon Valley Insider (a business outlet that covers the Silicon Valley area in California) passed on the information, their weight and reputation added to the perceived truthfulness of the iReport post.

CNN’s policy regarding iReport stated at the time: "we've launched an independent world where you, the iReport.com community, tell the stories we're not used to seeing. And the most compelling, important, and urgent ones may get seen on CNN.” This "may get seen" wording implied that CNN would check the accuracy of statements that appeared on iReport before allowing them to be posted.  Although CNN's policy at the time did also state "the views and content on this site are solely those of the iReport.com contributors. CNN makes no guarantees about the content or the coverage on iReport.com!" the earlier statement still suggested at least some oversight of published content.

Once Apple’s representatives learned of the iReport statement, they promptly denied the report and publically announced that Steve Jobs had not been hospitalized. CNN then called the posting “fraudulent” and removed it, but belatedly.  Sources such as the Silicon Valley Insider posted Apple's denial a full 20 minutes before CNN took down the iReport item--a near eternity for the stock market. 

Business Insider referred to this case as the “first significant test” for citizen journalism. The iReport story and its consequences gave rise to such issues as: 

  • Should citizen journalism be treated the same as journalism reported by professionals?  
  • Citizen journalists do not have the training and experience of professional journalist, so what standards should they be held to?
  • How quickly should the public believe the content of citizen journalism? 
  • How skeptical should news consumers be about citizen journalism? Should professional reporters be even more skeptical?
  • How much skepticism is too much?

The lesson is that context matters. The circumstances in which citizen journalism is presented are vastly important. They influence whether information is viewed as credible, and how much benefit of the doubt information gets. Get it right, and the world reaps the benefits of infinitely more observations and opinions on an expanded range of issues. Get it wrong, and news consumers worldwide lose so much insight and information. 

In a perfect world, some, citizen journalism should be held to the same standard as professional news organizations. Yet for most practitioners, citizen journalism is more of a hobby than a formalized way to contribute to news. If citizen journalism cannot realistically meet professional standards of transparency, then what? It would be incredibly unfortunate to lose out on all the information and observations citizen journalism provides.

If the information cannot be presented as confirmed truth, at the very least it could be presented as food for thought, to be taken with a grain of salt. With careful consideration to how items are presented, citizen journalism can become a great venue for broadening the scope of news.