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Ethics Blog
January 23, 2009, 6:41 am
Filed under: Assignments

What is a phenomenon that you see in news that you find troubling? Is it uenthical? What standards of ethics do you feel are under challenge? What should our industry do in such a case?

Last October, a fake story claiming that Steve Jobs had been rushed to the emergency room after suffering a heart attack was posted on iReport.com, CNN’s citizen journalist Web site. 

Afterward, shares of Apple’s stock dropped 5.4 percent.

This event raises some serious questions about the relationship between traditional news media and citizen journalists. 

Would this same post on someone’s personal blog have had the same impact?  Did people trust iReport.com more because of its affiliation with CNN?

It seems to me that the average person with Apple stock is a fairly educated and discerning. However, a significant number of them clearly decided to act based on iReport.com’s content.

Were they skeptical at all?  Did they simply decide that rumors were enough?  Or, did they blindly believe?

The truly amazing part is that the fake posting was on the Web site for a grand total of twelve minutes, an eternity in the digital age.  News travels fast, especially on the Internet.  As a result, mistakes are amplified. That’s why today’s journalist have to make sure that their reporting is accurate the first time around.  

Now, I am not proposing that traditional news media should break all ties with citizen journalists.  The benefits far outweigh the risks.  The whole Web site should not be shut down because of a teenage prank. However, I think that changes obviously need to be made.  

First, CNN should require more information from their posters.  As it stands, posters only have to provide a valid email address.  I know that authenticating the identity of posters is tricky, but CNN will lose credibility if they continue to sponsor an unreliable Web site.

Second, CNN should more boldly display their disclaimer.  Instead of ignoring skepticism, the media should encourage it.  We should not fear the public questioning us. If we are doing our job properly, we have nothing to worry about.

In the meantime, the public should learn to be media literate, and hopefully, this will lead to some understanding.  In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, the media frequently feel pressure to make unsubstantiated reports public.   If the public understands how the media works, they will be able to differentiate between an honest mistake and irresponsible journalism.