“Citizen journalism,” my foot

Chicken Little

Credit: 10qdetective.blogspot.com

This morning I found yet another reason to be deeply skeptical about the value of anonymous postings online.

Today’s example is not the usual sort of mean/nasty/snarky/foul anonymous comment that makes me wonder about what sorts of people are inclined to hide their identities. My colleagues pointed me to this example on CNN iReport, an alleged online “citizen journalism” site, where any and all are invited “to share your story with CNN, and quite possibly the world.”

This “news” item I’m aggravated about has no basis in fact, according to the many experts on the subject who have been commenting on it (and who were not, of course, consulted for the “story”).

That is, it’s made up. Yet thanks to CNN and social media, this made-up story has been passed around to thousands of people.

Someone who tagged him/herself as “Marcus575” in Pasadena, CA, posted an item on CNN iReport over this past weekend claiming that scientists using data collected by NASA’s space-based NEOWISE asteroid-detecting telescope had found an asteroid on an impact course with Earth that could extinguish “all life on this planet…in less than 30 years from now.”


Though many people seemed to find this post interesting enough to share with others, luckily it appears that journalists did not bite the bait. Journalists questioned the experts, and the experts said it was bosh (my word, not theirs…).

In fact, today two journalism-watchdog sites – Knight Science Journalism Tracker and Jim Romenesko’s blog – flagged this non-story. By the time they had posted their critiques, sources at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory – where the bulk of NASA’s asteroid experts work – had contacted CNN to advise that the story was bogus. Consequently, CNN removed it from the iReport web site.

Oops, indeed.

I have two points to make about this, um, “thing.” (And let me note again, in full disclosure, that I am a consultant to NASA’s near Earth object observations program on communication issues. No one asked me to write this blog post. I got annoyed all by myself.)

First, the authoritative sources of information on near-Earth asteroids, close approaches, and impact risks are – as journalists know – the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Sentry asteroid impact risk table, JPL’s near-Earth object close-approach tables, and the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center.

All of these sites are updated continually, as new data become available.

Second, I am heartily in favor of citizen journalism. Local reporting by people on the ground can, and does, make valuable contributions to important stories – when these people are willing to identify themselves. Informed consumers of news and information want to know where it’s coming from – names, locations, and affiliations (when relevant) of sources help citizens decide what, and whom, to believe.