The Downside of Citizen Journalism

Opinion: The lack of editorial oversight opens the door for unfounded allegations that damage credibility, harm reputations and waste time.

I am not a big fan of the "citizen journalism" being practiced on the Internet these days. One of the tenets of "real" journalism is that you dont distribute information that hasnt been checked. Citizen publishers are under no such obligation, so the information that winds up in blogs and distributed on mailing lists must always be considered suspect, even if sent with the best of intentions.

Why does this matter? Because false information, once distributed, can never really be called back. You can distribute a correction, but some number of people will never see it. To them, the original story will always be the truth. The nasty allegation will never be answered and questions will remain.

Responding to these questions and allegations takes someones time and, frankly, most people have better things to do than respond to wacky Internet posts. And sometimes there can be so many posts that its impossible to respond to them all. Or the question may never even get to a person capable of answering it. This is the information ages equivalent of justice delayed being justice denied.

The Internet holds quite an attraction for people who dont think things through and who offer their perhaps well-meaning but ill-informed speculation to the masses. These people should be checking their facts rather than putting out a question that should never have been asked in a public forum. Not that I have a problem with questions, people tell me I ask way too many of them. Its just that public questions can lead to erroneous conclusions.

I am writing because of an example I ran into a few days ago. In the great scheme of things, its not a very big deal. It doesnt matter what mailing list this occurred on. Its the issue, not the individuals involved, that deserves discussion. Ill just say the list goes out to tens of thousands of readers and is mostly comprised of information sent to the lists moderator for redistribution.

Heres the post that concerned me. It regards National Public Radio.

"Subject: NPR Censors Katrina Report?

"A week or so ago, (this list) forwarded a personal memoir by two paramedics who were" treated badly by New Orleans authorities. (I am fuzzing this so as not to repeat a serious allegation I cant vouch for).

"While driving home yesterday, I chanced upon an interview with several Katrina survivors on our local NPR station during their regular Sunday afternoon feature. The second person interviewed was one of these paramedics, and just as she was getting into the really awful events she experienced, NPR cut the feed for that story, and replaced it with one from several months ago regarding poverty in Latin America. After about ten minutes of this new replacement, I turned off my radio.

"An e-mail inquiry to my local NPR station has so far gone unanswered.

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