False Steve Jobs Heart Attack Report on CNN's iReport Is a Failure of Open Systems
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False Steve Jobs Heart Attack Report on CNN's iReport Is a Failure of Open Systems

Someone posted a false report that Steve Jobs had heart attack to CNN’s citizen journalism site iReport. The fallout (which could include an SEC investigation) lead to the inevitable question of whether this is a failure of citizen journalism.

It’s not. It’s a failure of open systems.

As Sarah Perez points out at ReadWriteWeb, ANYONE can become a citizen journalist on iReport:

Apparently, it’s as easy to become a citizen journalist on CNN as it is to sign up for a new web app from an internet startup, if not easier. The process involves nothing more than filling out a name, screen name, and email address. Adding a phone number is optional and only necessary if you want the story to be considered by CNN. There’s a CAPTCHA to prevent bots and an email confirmation link, but thanks to disposable email addresses, those are practically a waste of time these days.

“Citizens” — people who are not professional journalists — can use a platform like iReport to legitimately report news. Remember those eyewitness reports from the Minnesota bridge collapse?

The problem is — and this is something that advocates of citizen journalism typically overlook — that if a platform is open, and anyone can participate, that means not only can well-intentioned citizens participate but so can bad actors, spammers, liars, cheats, and thieves.

That’s the double-edged swords of open systems — you have to take the bad with the good. In fact, you have to EXPECT the bad with the good. The ideology of open participation has revolutionized media, but that same ideology is often quite naive.

Someone posts a false report to a citizen journalism platform — I’m shocked, SHOCKED to find that gambling is going on in here!

Ask Google or Digg about the problem with open systems — heaven help you if you’re successful, because you will be consigned to waging a nonstop battle again spam and every imaginable type of malicious behavior.

When we first conceived of Publish2 as a platform exclusively for journalists, we worried that we would take a lot of flack for trying to define who a journalist is at a time when that definition is expanding. But we realized that our “velvet rope” is really about what we want to keep OUT, i.e. covert PR, undisclosed marketing, and SPAM. That’s why rather than a definition we opted for a set of editorial standards.

The issue with citizen journalism is not about who is qualified or smart enough to be a journalist. It’s about TRUST and TRANSPARENCY. It may not be brain surgery, but (dis)information in the wrong hands does have the potential to do real harm. There’s a reason why journalism has developed standards for reporting, sourcing, fact checking, and accuracy.

It’s because these standards protect people.

New organizations like CNN that have rolled out completely open systems should think carefully about the potential harm that can be done when they toss out editorial standards in the name of open participation.

iReport’s tagline is “Unedited. Unfiltered. News.” Yeah, well, throw in lies and spam and anything else besides “news” that “the people” want to throw in.

Saying anyone can participate in journalism doesn’t mean there should be no standards. And launching an unpoliced open system doesn’t mean it will always be used for anything that can fairly be called journalism.


Instead of trying to host the citizen journalism, to OWN it, which is of course what traditional media organizations are designed to do, news sites should find the citizen journalism already being done on the ultimate open platform — the web. And when they find good reporting, and verify it according to journalistic standards, then they can LINK to it. So instead of creating an open spam platform, news sites will have created more connections on the web and elevated the link to form of news judgement.

But that actually requires a bit of effort. It’s so much easier to set up an open platform and let people run wild… until it blows up in your face and sucks value out of your news brand. Which is reckless, because trusted brands are news organization’s greatest assets.

Here’s an idea for news orgs — publish a how to video or screencast that teaches people in your community how to set up their own blog and report. And tell them that if they do good work, you’ll link to them and send them traffic. And guess what — they’ll link back to you. That’s the way the web works. That’s the beauty of the web.