Steve Jobs: Citizen journalism didn’t fail

by Mathew on October 3, 2008 · 49 comments

Taking the train to work this morning, little did I know that I would get sucked into a blog- and Twitter-storm over the essence of journalism, social media, “citizen journalism” and a bunch of other topics. That’s how things roll in the blogosphere: one minute you’re reading Twitter, and the next minute you’re trying to defend journalism, or being attacked for not defending it, or some combination of the two. My mistake — and I do think it was a mistake — was to post a Twitter message after seeing a report on CNN’s iReport “citizen journalism” portal about Steve Jobs having a heart attack (a link I got from a Twitter post by Loren Feldman).

I said there were reports of a heart attack, but that they were unverified. A minute or two later, I said that the sources were iReport and a comment from someone at Digg who said they heard it on the news. A few minutes later, I said that it could easily have been a troll, or someone trying to move the stock price (which did drop as a result of the news). A few minutes after that, someone pointed to a report at Silicon Alley Insider, that said Henry Blodget had called Apple and gotten a denial, as others subsequently did. All’s well that ends well, right? Well, maybe not (Henry’s justification of his own reporting of the rumour is here).

I got a number of comments after my initial Twitter message that said I shouldn’t have posted anything without confirming it. Kara Swisher of All Things D, whom I consider a friend, scolded me for doing so without calling anyone, and later said that she never reports anything unless she knows it to be true. Should I have called someone? Perhaps — although I was on the train, and I don’t have Apple’s head of PR on speed-dial, as some people do. And in retrospect, a single unsourced rumour on iReport and a comment at Digg was probably not enough to go on. Point taken.

As I said on Twitter, I often feel like I’m working without a net when I blog or post messages to Twitter or otherwise use social media. Am I journalist? Yes. But I’m also a person. Do people who read my Twitter posts expect journalism, or do they expect a person? To be honest, I think that varies. Some people who commented on Twitter said they were fine with me posting the rumour, since I said it was unverified, and that as far as they’re concerned, Twitter is “like a digital water-cooler” and therefore standards are looser (and yet in some cases better). Others said they agreed with Kara and that they expect better of me.

Fair enough. Like I said, I’m learning as I go. But does this mean citizen journalism has failed? I don’t think so. As I commented at Zoli Erdos’s blog, and on the Read/WriteWeb post, it didn’t take long for the rumour to be corrected (and not by a traditional journalist either), and as far as I’m concerned, that is what social media or citizen journalism or whatever you want to call it is supposed to be about — it’s a process, not an event. Can it be abused? Obviously it can. Should we all be a little more careful, myself included, before we rush to post something? Sure we should. Did citizen journalism (or whatever you call it) fail? No.

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  • http://www.banane.com banane

    I believe citizen journalism is making us all better readers- we never should have been lulled into the “everything in print is true”, and we should read twits with a grain of salt too :)

  • http://carrieanddanielle.com Daniel Gibbons

    I think it's like virtually everything else — people want all the upside and none of the downside. That is, they want instant gratification and expect everything they hear to be 100% right.

    The real issue is that the blogosphere loves to get self-righteous and indignant because it drives page views.

  • http://readburner.com Adam Ostrow

    Good post Mathew … though I don't agree with you that it was a mistake to post the Twitter message. I caught similar flack for posting – in question form – about the rumor of death of Subway Jared (which, was ultimately not true of course). Your tweet wasn't an article in The Globe and Mail – it wasn't even a post on your personal blog.

    Twitter's essentially a chat room – why not re-post rumor and let the listeners either confirm/reject/or point you in another direction – which may eventually lead to discovery of the real story (or non-story as the case may be). To hold it to the same standards as traditional journalism is silly and would make Twitter a much more boring and less useful place.

  • http://allied.blogspot.com jeneane

    if you consider yourself a “citizen journalist,” then you should check “facts” before “reporting,” and you failed. If you consider yourself a blogger who writes about stuff you care about and who happened to re-tweet something someone else heard, then it's just another day in the life. Sorry, nice guy that you are, I don't look to you as my breaking news source. :-)

  • http://www.charlesarthur.com/blog/ Charles

    I think social media and citizen journalism are different things. And the original wasn't citizen journalism – it was a prank, intended to either short the shares or just give some griefers a laugh.

    Not everyone has to be more careful, but paradoxically we (journalists) hold journalists like yourself – and ourselves – to a higher standard. So you and we have to be more careful before bouncing on stuff like this. Come on, it's the modern form of a chain letter. It's a lousy start to your day, but sometimes you get days like that. Oh well.

  • http://techdirt.com/ Michael Masnick

    Good post. I don't get what the hubbub was. I find it difficult to believe that anyone would see your twitter and believe that you were “reporting” or had verified it. It was clear that you were just passing it on — and Twitter is a natural conversational site, not a news reporting one.

  • Mark

    Hi Mathew — 25 minutes passed from your initial tweet to the denial via the TUAW. The crowd self corrected and it didn't take long. IMHO that is pretty good. As for individual actors like yourself, you acted responsibly and in the spirit of the medium. When I saw the tweet from @ForbesTech saying the source was CNN and not iReport, I shuddered a bit because an alleged CNN confirmation would surely spawn a stock run — especially when it comes from Forbes. In your case, you said it was unverified and you did so from your personal account. You did not mislead or act irresponsibly. Don't let journos steeped in Woodstein era overblown self regard give you a guilt trip.
    best,

  • http://disruptivethoughts.com Fraser

    Read your twitter posts this morning (all 3 of them… it was very clear that you were not Mathew the journalist at that point). And then read your post here.

    Just wanted to second Adam's comment that – in my opinion – you did nothing wrong. Had you posted just your first twitter update to your blog with a note that it was cross posted to your Globe and Mail blog I may have expected this response from you.

  • http://disruptivethoughts.com Fraser

    I think this is the long-term evolution of where readership is going, especially when the news is first consumed via a near real-time channel such as Twitter.

    Some of us are just getting there before others :)

  • http://digitalsocialite.typepad.com Lynn Crymble

    I completely agree that citizen journalism is a process, not an event. What a wonderful opportunity it is to be able to question something openly and have others share their opinion and deny or verify items.
    banane's point about our propensity to believe that what we see in traditional media is fact is a good one. This is not always the case, not on purpose but it happens. People need to decide for themselves how they will take in any information.
    In the end, I don't think that your Twitter message was at all misleading or bad. It's something you saw, found interesting and shared – thanks.

  • http://www.tweetip.com/tumblr tweetip

    1st Tweets ~ Steve Jobs Heart Attack ~ Timeline/Chart… http://tweetip.us/lkq3e

  • http://www.tinkugallery.com tinkugallery

    You made it clear in your Tweet that “news” was reporting the Jobs story and that it was unverified. I didn't think there was anything wrong with saying that — all it did was make me Google for more information rather than just assuming it was the truth. Saleem Khan made a good point in his Tweet to you that much journalism is based on information that is not personally experienced by the journalist — I presume you make a judgement call as a journo whether or not to report something based on the credibility of your sources. Citizen journalism has not failed any more than human beings have failed in terms of people talking about things that may or may not be true. There is always going to be a bit of both. Anyone who blindly believes a journalist (citizen or otherwise) is bound to be misinformed.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    That's a great point, banane — I hope that is happening.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, Fraser — and Adam. My regret with what I posted on Twitter was that on second thought it seemed obvious (as more than one person has pointed out) that the report was dubious at best, and a Digg comment is hardly a great source either :-) But I am still fine with the concept in theory.

  • http://twitter.com/ClareWhite Clare

    I wouldn't let it ruin your day.

    Twitter is going to become a channel for rumours whether we like it or not and there are going to be a lot of journalists tracking what people say on Twitter and then following it up. OK, so you generally follow people you trust on Twitter but even so just assuming everything on there is going to be the truth is a pretty dangerous path.

    I'd say texting something into Twitter in a way that makes it perfectly clear that it is unverified, is an acceptable way of bringing something to your community's attention. There are patterns of rumours and I guess the Steve Jobs one is becoming fairly recognisable, so it might have crossed your mind that this was untrue, but that's more one for your analytical blog post, not your spontaneous expression of surprise.

    If you get a whole lot of people saying you're wrong, at least you'll stand corrected (and the likelihood is your mistake will be obvious far quicker than most news sources) but I don't really see that you should be criticised quite so much as a journalist for it, unless your Twitter channel said “This is a news feed. Everything here has been carefully crafted by a professional reporter”.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, Mike. Some people seem to disagree, since I am a professional journalist in my day job — they would argue that changes the way people read what I post even on something like Twitter.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, Jeneane — I think :-)

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, Mark.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, Lynn. I appreciate that.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, Tinku — and I'm glad your impulse was to Google for confirmation :-)

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks for the comment, Clare.

  • http://www.socialmediagroup.com maggiefox

    Great post, Mathew. As I said, Twitter is a conversation, not a newspaper, and the standards are different. Anyone who runs wildly off and acts on a snippet of an unverified Twitter conversation isn't proving anything except that they suffer from poor judgement.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk ianbetteridge

    “it didn’t take long for the rumour to be corrected (and not by a traditional journalist either),”

    I think the division between journalists and non-journalists is a false one. As I've argued on a number of occasions, peel away the job title and the paycheck, and what you're left with isn't a role, as such, but a process: the process of building contacts, gathering sources, researching the story, and so on.

    So, while it wasn't a “traditional journalist” that debunked the rumour, it was someone using the journalistic process – simply by the tried and trusted method of picking up the phone, and calling someone in full possession of the facts.

    The truth of “citizen journalism” is that anyone can *be* a journalist, simply by *doing* journalism. When re-twitttering a rumour, you weren't doing journalism – that doesn't make you any poorer as a journalist, though, because I think you were pretty clear that you weren't putting up a story :)

  • Cynthia Brumfield

    This is an utterly silly and self-important debate, in my view. Did anybody who read your initial “Tweet” take it as a piece of journalism and react accordingly? It's not like you were considered to be a citizen journalist posting on a mainstream TV news organization's site.

    I've read (and posted) the craziest things on Twitter and I was just assuming that most people use judgment when following the flow of conversation, checking out original sources and conducting an irony check when something is over the line. Unless you're proclaiming that what you tweet is a journalistic effort, I don't see why you have to follow the tenets of the profession on Twitter.

  • http://disruptivethoughts.com Fraser

    “It’s a process, not a single event.”

    Best comment that I've read around this event. Wikipedia taught us that quick edits and iteration create fairly accurate content. We don't judge the initial article (now called a stub) to Britannica, but after it goes through the process we generally trust its quality.

  • http://3i.wildfirestrategy.com tamera kremer

    Mathew,

    To be fair, I have no idea who Kara is or what her tweets to you were about as I don't follow her on Twitter. My tweet was a direct response to your asking for feedback after the fact and my sharing my opinion. To conflate the two makes it seem as if I was piling on vs. answering something I thought you wanted to get opinions on.

    Tamera

  • rob tyrie

    Matthew, I think you are a journalist. Your voice, even on twitter, has a responsibility when you use it to report news. When you use it to share what you are having for lunch or to share your personal feelings, well, that not news, its the sharing of a person. For those items, I think you are a person. I think you did the right things today as a journalist and as a person. And I also think that the incident shows the power of rapid sharing of information both on CNN and on Twitter. I suspect Twitter won't change, but iReport on CNN will. Fascinating stuff.

  • http://www.michellesullivan.ca Michelle Sullivan

    Considering I was probably the first to retweet your Jobs tweet this morning, I'd have to say that the fact that you dedicated 10 characters of your 140 character allocation by typing the word “unverified” in your tweet covers all the bases for me. Long live the water cooler!

    I'm just glad I followed that retweep up with a comforting message to my Apple and iPhone buddies encouraging them to take a deep breath … that everything would be fine. I wouldn't want any heart attacks (no pun intended) on my conscience.

    We all know how sensitive those Apple fans can be. ;)

    Always a pleasure to read you, Mr Ingram.

  • http://www.sarahintampa.com sarahintampa

    I also think it was fine to tweet. Twitter is for rumors, gossip, etc. It's not the news. But it can give you the jump on a breaking story if used correctly.

    This kind of makes me think of this session I just attended given by Etan Horowitz on “Twitter in Journalism.” When journalists delve into new media, there just aren't any hard lines yet about what's OK and what's not. They're making the rules up as they go along. :)

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    My apologies, Tamera — I didn't mean to conflate anything, or to give
    the impression you were piling on. I was really just trying to give an
    idea of the range of responses I got — all of which I thought were
    totally fair comment, by the way.

  • http://leighhimel.blogspot.com leigh

    I'm totally with Cynthia on this one. And just to go one further, different mediums have different dynamics and so too do different services. To expect the same level of due diligence on Twitter where people often come out with gems like “I just ate a sandwich” is just plain silly.

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  • turning49

    This is why one should read a newspaper or book on the train.

  • http://www.direct2dell.com Lionel_Menchaca

    Mathew: Interesting post. I tend to agree with just about everything you wrote here–I think tweeting something and calling it unverified is justified. Like a lot of other folks, I use Twitter and Friendfeed to get an idea of what things are being discussed, and refer to Techmeme several times a day.

    I don't expect every blog post or tweet to be true… but it does seem to be a good indicator of news items that tend to get updated pretty quickly if they turn out to be inaccurate.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, Michelle.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Indeed. Thanks, Sarah.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks for the comment, Lionel.

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  • http://guhmshoo.wordpress.com Guhmshoo

    Humor: Is this what citizen journalism looks like: http://tinyurl.com/4bod3e

  • http://guhmshoo.wordpress.com Guhmshoo

    Humor: Is this what citizen journalism looks like: http://tinyurl.com/4bod3e

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