A mixed week for citizen journalists as Steve Jobs declines to die

Good news: Steve Jobs did not have a major heart attack this week. Bad news: A serious "citizen journalism" misfire may have caused several heart attacks for investors anyway.

The "Steve Jobs heart attack" rumor, which started with a single post on the iReport site owned by CNN and spread rapidly through the blogosphere and parts of the mainstream media, illustrates the downside of throwing the doors of a news site open to anyone -- even as the week's financial and political news showed how effective and intelligent reader news gathering and commentary can be when it's done right.

Numerous attempts around the blogosphere Thursday to spot erroneous statements by vice presidential candidates Sen. Joe Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin during their debate that evening, turned up some solid nearly-real-time fact-checking -- a critical component to any sort of real journalism. Both candidates engendered frantic posts documenting misstatements, errors of fact, and bizarre factoid confirmations, including the news that "Bosniak" is a real word.

Meanwhile, the Jobs rumor circus opened early Friday when "johntw" -- a new commenter to iReport -- posted a claim that an anonymous source told "him" that Jobs was suffering heart attack-like symptoms and that paramedics were called. The post was on iReport for serveral hours, and was prominently displayed for at least part of that time. Apple heard about and issued a strong denial, and CNN later pulled the story from iReport -- but not before nervous investors dropped the stock price by nearly 7 percent.

CNN later issued a statement calling the original post "fraudulent," and investigations are underway as to whether it was a deliberate effort to tank the stock price or just some random "johntw" joker.

Since CNN pulled the entire item down, comments on the original post are presumably lost to the world. But over at Silicon Alley Investor, editor Henry Blodget documented the entire sequence of events -- and many of the comments he got on his coverage point to further kinks in the citizen-journalism plan.

A few quick-on-the-draw investors blamed Blodget's article, not the iReport original, for losses, as "Stu" did: "Mr Blodget, it was your website that was linked in my trading newsfeed, not CNN's iReport. You should know that even putting 'unconfirmed' in the title does not stop people from hitting the sell button. When it is something as serious as this, people don't hang around to ask whether it's true when the stock is starting to tank."

A few others such as "Bendo" even took the opportunity to raise the ghost of Blodget's past, when he paid out millions of dollars in settlements over charges of securities fraud: "I hope you Hank, Lindzon and Aarron Task do some serious jail time over this, you avoided it when you were doing the same sort of crap at Merril [sic]. I hope they nail your sorry *** to the wall this time. If I were you I'd start preparing a legal defense."

Other commenters noted that by branding iReport as a CNN property, the news network put its own credibility at the mercy of any anonymous writer, whatever her or his motives.

Charles F. Johnson, proprietor of Little Green Footballs, echoes that thought. "CNN's iReport site is no different from any other Internet discussion board -- random people posting random things, with almost no editorial oversight. There's a 'flag for review' button, but I can see no evidence that this is ever used by CNN for anything.

"The site is full of hate speech, lunatic ranting, and unsubstantiated rumors -- this Steve Jobs story is just the latest example," Johnson continued. "When [former White House press secretary] Tony Snow died, there was a deluge of sheer hatred posted there, and no one did anything about it -- which raises the question of whether they: 1) approve of that kind of stuff, or 2) just don't care."

Media sites can't just throw open the doors and watch the page view counters spin, Johnson added. "The only way to make a community site work well, without descending into non-stop trollery and hateful garbage, is to monitor things carefully and stop rumors like the Steve Jobs one as soon as they're started. This is one key to LGF's success; if you don't take charge and keep things on track, it will inevitably be derailed by the chaotic, inherently irresponsible nature of the Internet."

Johnson brewed his own blog engine and developed his own tools for monitoring comments and stopping abuse quickly; other sites take a "post-moderation" approach to input. And though the two situations threw reader-contributed "citizen" journalism into the spotlight, it's good to remember that more traditional media outlets fall down too: The last hysteria-based hiccup in Apple's stock price happened in September when Steve Jobs' obit hit the wires prematurely...courtesy of Bloomberg News Service.

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