Steve Jobs not ill, media slightly unsettled (updated)

On Friday afternoon a “citizen journalism” site called iReporter (owned by CNN, which as far as I can tell treats it like a sort of sandpit where the citizen kids can amuse themselves) carried what would, in many circumstances, have been a dramatic report:

Steve Jobs was rushed to the ER just a few hours ago after suffering a major heart attack. I have an insider who tells me that paramedics were called after Steve claimed to be suffering from severe chest pains and shortness of breath. My source has opted to remain anonymous, but he is quite reliable. I haven’t seen anything about this anywhere else yet, and as of right now, I have no further information, so I thought this would be a good place to start. If anyone else has more information, please share it.

Good Lord! Could it be so? I applied my journalistic doubt filter. (Having been caught out by some pranksters in the past, this is now my first reaction to potentially huge news like this.)

First of all: what time would it be in California, where Jobs lives? Hmm, at 2pm on a Friday in London, it would be at least 8 hours behind – in other words, 6am. That at once gave a doubtful cast to two of the points in that “report”.

Who and where could the “insider” be? Not someone at Apple. While there might be people at 1 Infinite Loop who’d work until 3am or 4am, Jobs wouldn’t. He’s got a family and, well, a life. So he would have been at home. So the “insider” would be inside to what? The hospital? Paramedic dispatch? In which case they either wouldn’t know that it was a major heart attack, or what the symptoms were.

Plus sources who opt to remain anonymous yet are “quite reliable”… sure. We come across those all the time in journalism. We call them either “politicians briefing against an opponent” or “loons”. Generally, in both cases, you’re talking about lies.

The killer detail though was this. Let’s say it had really happened, and that Johnny Citizen had been told this by his mate in paramedic dispatch. (Unlikely, because you’d have an address, not a name, so who’s to know who’s suddenly complaining of chest pains? Anyway).

How easy is it to enter something on iReporter? Not very easy, actually. You have to register first – fill in your name and email and click on a link in a confirmation email. OK. And how many other reports had this person filed? None. Nada. Zero.

So they’d been told this by their friend, and said “I know, I’ll go and do it on iReporter.. umm, login.. password… where’s the email, come on, come on!” And then they’d fill in this vague but detailed account?

Come on. Any sane person would either Twitter it, or put it on MySpace or Facebook, or – hell – ring up their local radio or TV station if they really believed their tip. This failed the “did a real person do this in real time?” test. Conclusion: obvious prank.

However others “reported” it (it was bouncing around Twitter for hours). The effect on Apple’s stock was dramatic: it dipped suddenly, before Apple was able to get the word out that (unsurprisingly) Jobs was fine. The US Stock Exchange Commission announced that it is investigating whether this was a case of rumour-driven short selling (pushing down a stock price to make profits). But it seems more likely that it was simply another offering from the pranksters at 4chan.

That didn’t stop Silicon Alley Insider from publishing the details of the claim, plus the rather weird claim that “citizen journalism failed its first big test”. Duh, no. Citizen journalism passed its first big test in the London bombings in 2005, when people inside tube trains took videos that showed what conditions were like.

(Mathew Ingram, who is generally a really good reporter, was on the train, saw the rumour on his Twitter stream, and echoed it. Big mistake. He got scolded by the Wall Street Journal’s Kara Swisher – and, I’ll say, me – for not checking a little harder. Henry Blodget at Silicon Valley Insider? Well, he’s not your mainstream media, and it shows, baby.)

Dan Gillmor notes that the real fools in all this were the people who sold Apple shares on the “news”:

The shareholders who panicked are fools. Not the first time. Maybe when enough people get burned after believing things they should ignore, well all recognize that we have to be skeptical of everything but not equally skeptical of everything.

Meanwhile for Jobs, who has already had his obituary published and multiple articles speculating about his health published, Friday morning in Cupertino was probably another chance to pull on his glasses, blink at the morning sunshine, and wonder quite how many times he’s going to get to die before he actually does get his chance at nirvana.

Update: CNet does the investigation:

What hasn’t been widely circulated yet is that iReport was not the first place the fake story was sent. Arnold Kim, who operates the blog, MacRumors.com, wrote Friday that someone submitted the same rumor to his site using an anonymous IP address. Kim did some research on the rumor and decided it was a fake. Later, he tracked the report and found it being circulated by members of online message board 4chan. Kim also discovered the item was circulating on Digg, a popular news aggregation site. Digg users, however, voted the story down, meaning they also were skeptical.

2 Comments

  1. It seems like you’re engaging in a bit of real-life retconning, here. Although you came to the right conclusion, your reasoning was shaky – you got lucky. Maybe Steve could have been at a late night party? Who knows where he could be? Maybe the paramedics recognised him? Maybe the source wouldn’t want to be identified, for fear of his job, and that explains the anonymising instead of using existing MySpace, Twitter, or Facebook accounts? The same logic goes for starting a brand new ireporter account, even if you already have one.

    The stuff that you claim doesn’t make sense, is all, actually, perfectly reasonable — it just happens to have been false.

  2. Charles

    Monday 6 October 2008 at 10:32 pm

    I’m not retconning. I’m telling you what I did. And I’d like to think I’ve come across enough people telling truth, and enough telling lies, to recognise the ones who are just a bit tongue-tied but honest, and the ones who are trying to make it sound like they’re telling something true but aren’t.

    If even one detail had rung true then I would have been a lot more ready to treat it as possibly true – and got on the phone to Apple. But it had too many points against it to stand up.

    What’s not specified is what “research” Kim did on the rumour. (In the update.) One guesses it didn’t go as far as a phone call. I wonder if he too didn’t like the odd spontaneity of the language. Now there’s a guy who has to try to figure out the believable from the not…

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