– The Technique, Georgia Tech, 10/31/08, Opinion Article
For a long time now, I have been very interested in information or otherwise being that guy with access to the information. Perhaps it’s from watching the news every night when I was younger, or maybe I just watch too many spy movies.
Regardless, I am fascinated with how news is gathered, re- ported and the variety of methods in the ways it is brought to the public. It seems now the stars have aligned with the growing influence of the Internet and the rise of social news websites like Digg, Slashdot and Delicious.
People, including myself, are now able to get their information fix in a wide variety of ways, as well as participate in the information gathering process by submitting news stories, images and videos to these social news websites. Furthermore, people are able to get their information at a much faster pace that the traditional media outlets, like CNN or NBC.
For instance, there is an upstart news wire service called @BreakingNewsOn that relies on the rapid- fire speed of the micro-blogging web service Twitter to “tweet” out breaking news stories, most of the time much sooner than any other major news outlet. In journalism, the ability to get that breaking news story out the quickest is a fundamental element that makes this field so competitive.
With this new uprising of social media and the Internet as a platform for information and news, these traditional media are scrambling for a way to be included in this new trend and not be left behind in the Internet’s dust. Big media organizations have begun to experiment with social news and citizen journalism to try to compete, and they have so far been somewhat successful.
Perhaps the most notable new form of citizen journalism is CNN’s iReport, in which users participate in submitting news stories, eyewitness videos, photos and other first-hand accounts of news as it happens. CNN iReport has been largely successful, with submissions of the Virginia Tech shooting and I-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota among the first re- ports of events.
Citizen journalism is not a new phenomenon in the world of news media. The modern citizen journalist movement began in the late 1980s when a large number of journalists became disillusioned, as did the general public, with the established news media. The establishment of citizen journal- ism was defined by its purpose to have journalism that was for the people. Today, citizen journalism is still going strong with the birth of blogging, allowing anyone with access to the Internet to publish whatever they want, and with that, report on things that they witness and experience.
However, citizen journalism is not without its inherent risks, namely, reporting on false stories. Anyone with a camera or an eye- witness account can now suddenly become a journalist. For instance, the story of the infamous Rodney King video was broken not by a traditional news reporter, but by a passerby who happened to have a camcorder and recorded the event, later spreading it into the traditional news scene.
One might think that citizen journalism is great, and I have to agree most of the time. It allows the people who actually experience the events that the news covers to document and share that experience with everyone else. However, the risk of the “system” being taken advantage of is high.
Case in point: the recent report a few weeks ago on CNN’s iReport of Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs being rushed to the hospital for a heart attack. The report, which was later found to be completely unfounded and downright false, was submitted to the iReport web- site merely claiming that the story’s submitter knew an “insider” who stated that Jobs was rushed to the hospital displaying symptoms of a heart attack.
The story was quickly picked up by multitudes of blogs and as a result caused Apple’s stock price to plummet with investors fearing the worst. Much later, CNN retracted the story after the rest of the iReport community claimed it was false. Apple had to make an official statement refuting the rumor, and the Securities and Exchange Commission is even investigating the report’s submitter claiming that he purposefully tried to decrease stock prices.
This is a prime example of the fact that, while the vision and execution of citizen journalism works the majority of the time, the risk remains of major catastrophes from false reporting. This is some- thing that needs to be controlled.