An unsubstantiated report of Apple CEO Steve Jobs suffering a heart attack is emboldening question marks around the notion of citizen journalism. A user identified only as "Johntw" posted a story on CNN's iReport Web site Friday morning stating Jobs had been rushed to the ER as a result of a "major heart attack." The user cited "an insider" who he said "opted to remain anonymous" but was "quite reliable."
That tersely stated reliability proved to be enough to send Apple's stock plummeting. The company's shares fell by more than 10 percent shortly after the report's publication. It wasn't until Apple representatives came forward to adamantly deny the claims that shares rebounded, and the report was removed. The Securities and Exchange Commission is now investigating.
CNN's iReport site, like other news organizations' user-submitted content portals, allows anybody to submit and immediately publish content. Fill out a form, click the link in the e-mailed verification, and you're a full-fledged iJournalist. That kind of raw and instant connection can be a blessing, or -- as demonstrated in Friday's Jobs incident -- a curse.
"The Internet really is the Wild West when it comes to freedom of information -- there is no sheriff in town," says Terry Anzur, a TV talent coach and news veteran.
"Let's say you have another Virginia Tech shooting, and somebody with a cell phone is in the right place at the right time to be able to put the breaking news on iReport. You don't want to censor that -- and in order to get that, you have to put up with somebody who decides to start trouble by starting a rumor," she says.
Anzur happens to have a personal connection with Jobs -- the two graduated high school together in Cupertino, Calif. -- so hearing the apparent "news" of his heart attack certainly caught her attention. And while CNN's iReport site is separated from the network's primary online news operation, cnn.com, Anzur believes the shared branding can easily cause confusion.
"The typical user does not [draw the distinction]," she says. "They don't know whether the 'i' in iReport stands for 'intelligent' or 'idiot.'"
A blurred line
That increasingly blurred line between journalism and rumor is a serious concern for Al Tompkins, the broadcast/online group leader at The Poynter Institute -- a specialized school for journalists of all media forms.
"How could you possibly allow just anybody to post just anything under your label unless you have blazing billboards that say, 'None of this has been verified, we've not looked at any of this, we have no idea if this is true'?" he asks.
iReport's banner at the top of the site reads: "Unedited. Unfiltered. News." That marketing, Tompkins asserts, delivers a misleading message.
"Unedited, unfiltered news -- what that means to me is, boy, this is the real thing. Nobody's trying to put a spin on me here," he says. "The truth is that it's not just unedited and unfiltered -- it's unverified."
A more detailed disclaimer is found only when clicking onto the site's "About" page. Tompkins questions whether that inconspicuous placement is enough.
"If you're going to run a raw site like that, with absolutely no verification, it better be prominently displayed that this is nothing more than a rumor mill," he says.
Ultimately, the issue comes down to definitions: How can we easily ascertain the difference between trustworthy information and meaningless chit-chat? A site with CNN branding -- even if it's under the name iReport -- can clearly be misinterpreted as legitimate news, as Steve Jobs and his Apple colleagues discovered. And while iReport may contain some legitimate news, the same lack of editorial standards that sets it apart from mainstream media also erodes away its reliability.
"One thing that should differentiate journalism sites from any other kind of sites is the issue of verification. That is what we do. We don't just publish -- we verify before we publish," Tompkins says.
Services such as iReport, then, essentially become open forums of expression. Few would question the value of such forums -- but again, it all boils down to definitions. Does an open forum constitute journalism?
"The frame 'citizen journalism' itself is a little on the toxic side for me," Tompkins says. "Can you go down to the bus stop and talk to a 'citizen physician'? If I work on my garbage disposal, am I a 'citizen plumber'? The whole notion that anybody can be a journalist I think is wrong-minded, because journalism as a craft does mean something. It actually embodies a conduct and a standard of truth-telling that I think still are important."
Lines may become blurred in the age of information, but the importance of definitions -- concepts such as "journalism," "truth," and "rumor" -- remains constant. The manufactured hospitalization of a well-known CEO makes that all too clear.
"Information is moving much faster, but it doesn't mean the information is any better than it ever was," Tompkins says.
"If anything, this may send a real warning signal."