New media feels heat after Apple misstep

CNN's citizen reporters sent Apple stocks plunging Friday with a false report on Steve Jobs.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A promo for CNN's citizen journalism site, iReport.com, reads: "You won't believe what people are uploading." Maybe readers should take that literally.

An anonymous writer posted a false story to the site claiming that Apple Inc.'s CEO Steve Jobs had suffered a heart attack, sending the company's stock tumbling Friday. The Securities and Exchange Commission confirmed Henry Blodget Monday that it was investigating the circumstances surrounding the article.

Unlike stories on CNN's main site, most content on iReport.com can be uploaded by anyone, without editing. The erroneous piece stayed up for more than three hours – long enough to bounce around the blogosphere – before an Apple spokesperson quashed the rumor.

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Citizen journalism, or user-generated content, has proved successful enough to argue against abandoning it over snafus like this, say new media experts. Rather, the episode serves as a public reminder that "news" now includes both traditional journalism and a crowd-sourced model that treats verification as a public process, not a prerequisite for publishing.

Both models have their place, says David Ardia, head of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, but users must give the crowd-sourced model time to work. "If you are consuming this news when it first comes out, you have to recognize that the fact-checking function hasn't happened yet."

That process took a few hours in this case but clearly some investors didn't wait. Apple's share price lost nearly $12 before rebounding when the truth emerged.

The incident is a cautionary note for readers but has lessons for those involved in guiding user content, too.

One lesson may be that community policing of content can help bury bogus reports. The Steve Jobs report was submitted to other websites including Digg, says Arnold Kim of MacRumors.com. Digg relies on user input to raise or lower the prominence of stories, and it was users who kept this story off the front page, writes Mr. Kim on his blog.

By contrast, CNN's iReport is less mediated by human input. The most recently uploaded stories show up on the home page, as well as the "newsiest" stories as determined by an algorithm that factors in user opinions. CNN spokesperson Jennifer Martin says the Jobs story never appeared under "newsiest."

The filter of peer ratings works well for Helium, another site that publishes user-submitted writings. Submissions go through an automated plagiarism check and are then reviewed by the site's community of nonstaff writers. The top-rated articles rise to highest visibility.

"What it tends to do is discourage the bad actors over time because they get vetted out," says Peter Newton, vice president of business development.

Another way to minimize potential misinformation, says new media guru Jeff Jarvis, is for websites to nurture relationships with trusted news gatherers and give readers clearer caveats. "We thought we were in the business of saying what we know in the news. But we're more in the business of saying what we don't know," writes Mr. Jarvis at buzzmachine.com.

That's the approach taken by tech website Silicon Alley Insider. Editor Henry Blodget flagged the Jobs iReport, said he didn't know if it was true, and published the post before hearing back from Apple.

That decision sparked complaints. Even Jarvis – who expresses exasperation with professional reporters wanting to pounce on citizen journalism – says this particular story should have been relayed with more sensitivity than usual.

Defending his decision, Mr. Blodget wrote that the site doesn't view its role as a gatekeeper but takes advantage of the "immediate feedback loop" of its readers. In this case, the crucial feedback came from Apple's spokesperson, whose denial Blodget claimed as a scoop.

Silicon Alley Insider can plausibly distance itself from traditional reporting expectations, but can CNN?

The iReport site has its own URL and the tag line, "Unedited. Unfiltered. News." It also has a disclaimer that "CNN makes no guarantees" about its content. CNN producers pluck some of the material, vet it, and use it on cnn.com or CNN TV. The Jobs article was not picked up.

The iReporter could face charges under securities laws if he or she knowingly published false information in connection with buying or selling Apple stock, Mr. Ardia says, while CNN and Silicon Valley Insider probably are safe under the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

CNN is not changing policies after Friday's incident, says Ms. Martin.

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