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Monday, November 17, 2008

Pitfalls of citizen journalism

This is out of date but something I wanted to remember (and my blog's as good a place as any to store things I want to refer to later). It's a cautionary note on citizen journalism, and specifically on CNN's experimental iReport site, from Crowdsourcing author Jeff Howe.

"As many of you already know (certainly the readers of my book), I'm ambivalent about the usefulness of crowdsourcing in journalism. Today (October 3, 2008) proved my ambivalence isn't misguided.

"This morning a citizen journalist with supposed inside information posted a story to CNN's iReport site claiming that Steve Jobs had been rushed to the hospital with chest pains. Apple stock, unsurprisingly, dive bombed as a result, its fall only arrested once Apple spokeswoman Katie Cotton came out disputing the claim. (The story has been removed. Here's CNN's statement). (Update: Now the SEC has announced it will investigate the posting.) CNN wanted to give its viewers a voice. Instead it provided stock manipulators with one. Nice.

"I think the crowd make excellent sources and additional sets of eyes and ears, but I believe the future lies in carefully cultivated partnerships between professionals and their audiences.

"Examples: I'm a huge fan of Talking Points Memo and their TPMMuckraker project, am bullish on my colleague David Cohn's crowdfunded journalism site, Spot.Us. Both let professionals work the phones and write the copy, but encourage the crowd to do what it does best (unearthing data and marshalling support for underreported stories, respectively).

"Here's my point: I'm much less enthusiastic about straight-up, so-called "citizen journalism," in which readers are asked to perform the same duties as their professional counterparts, without any support or guidance from them. CNN's iReport is a case in point.

"CNN threw up a shingle on their Website, and asked its viewers to contribute their own reporting. This both diminishes the contributions of the amateurs by ghettoizing it onto the back of the bus (metaphorically speaking), and fails to hold it to the sort of standards that professionals must adhere to. Like, say, identifying yourself before posting a story that could cost shareholders millions of dollars.

"Anonymity has its place on the Web, and it might even have its place on news outlet comment boards (though that debate continues to rage). It does not have its place in journalism, per se."

I'm inclined to agree with Jeff on this - news organisations involving readers in generating, sourcing and analysing stories makes sense; hosting unedited websites written by unaccountable authors doesn't.

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