Citizen journalism is all the buzzword in mainstream media these days. The theory -- one I subscribe to, for the record -- is "just plain folk" are better connected in the big scheme of things than a handful of people in a newsroom, isolated as they are from reality by both world view and geography.
MPR has its Public Insight Network to break down these barriers, although the pathway to the listener/reader still requires things to travel along the "old-fashioned" route.
Some other mainstream media eliminates the middle-man altogether. On Friday, that didn't work so well when iReport.com, a "citizen journalism" site with ties to CNN reported Apple boss Steve Jobs had a heart attack.
The report sent Apple's stock tumbling to a 17-month low, and brought out the citizen journalist naysayers.
"It's a classic example of letting the Internet genie out of the bottle before proving if it's true," said Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean of Boston University's College of Communications. "The advantage you have with citizen journalism is you have a wide net of sources, but the problem is there's no gatekeeper."
But the fools are the ones who believed the post, suggests Dan Gillmor, who runs the Center for Citizen Media. "This is precisely the same warning that should (but doesn't) come with comment boards on major newspaper websites. But you have to believe that no one with a shred of common sense takes the random ranting below, say, a Washington Post article as anything terribly serious."
Is this some sort of watershed moment for citizen journalism? Probably not; mainstream media has been getting stuff wrong for years, but usually not deliberately. Still, says Sarah Perez at Read Write Web, it's an important moment for mainstream media to consider how it integrates citizen journalism.
We're interested in seeing how will CNN respond to this muddying of their good name. Will they disassociate themselves a bit from iReport? Or will they just be happy for the pageviews it brought? And will this give pause to other news outlets thinking of launching citizen journalism sites of their own? It's very possible. In these tough economic times, news reports that affect how the markets move are taken very seriously.
An obvious step in the right direction is that real names be used in citizen journalism. And the legal process itself might well solve the problem. The person that seeded the clouds with the Jobs story? He may go to jail.
I don't think there's such a thing as "Anonymous Journalism" (though there may be a "Journalists Anonymous"). If people want to be taken seriously, they have to use their own real name as a brand that anyone can make a judgment on quickly. That's got to be step 1.
Is there a value in, for lack of a better term, a group of unpaid stringers running around all over the place? Sure is. But they have to not only be identified bus also subject to the same fact-checking a regular reporter would be.
I think that in the long run there is a symbiosis between the professional reporters who act almost as editors combing through the CJ input that comes their way. That means that they are part of the fact-checking and ID process that turns a rumor into a report into news.
Allowing rumor to go directly to news doesn't do anyone any good, and while it takes time to put a brake on the process it's well worth it. The pros know what do do, and their role in doing it needs to be defined.