CNN’s new citizen-journalism site: beta, or blur?

What on earth is CNN playing at? It has a history of sacking or proscribing employees who had the temerity to blog, and yet it has just launched a beta website based on user-produced news.

Neville Hobson recently posted on the plight of ex-CNN employee Chez Pazienza who was sacked for covertly running his own blog. Chez could have been slightly silly in that, as someone who should have been sensitive to the issues around blogging in the communications industry, he failed to disclose what he was doing. I certainly asked my employer if they had any objections when I started this blog.

But Chez has also fallen foul of a company that apparently has no clear-cut blogging policy. He has effectively been sacked through interpretation of his employment contract rather than an absolute transgression.

CNN has form in this respect. Kevin Sites, a CNN war correspondent, was pressured into stopping his war blog which you can still see online its curtailed form.

So I’m quite amazed that suddenly CNN is endorsing citizen journalism without apparently having confirmed its position on the matter to its own employees.

Moreover, it seems to be abdicating responsibility for any of the content it carries: as the blurb on the home page runs, “CNN built the tools, you take it from there.”

I’m not convinced this is a sustainable position. We’re already seeing debate on the responsibilities of ISPs to monitor and mediate what they carry. What’s the difference between an ISP carrying pirate material, and a news media outlet delivering inaccurate, outdated, plagiarised or even defamatory material?

I wonder how significant the ‘beta’ label is in all this. Google Mail has been around for quite some time and yet still carries the beta badge. Google Reader only came out of beta badge fairly recently. I understand the concept of the ‘permanent’ beta now that apps are delivered online, but I do wonder whether it enables companies to abrogate a certain amount of responsibility as in, “Oops, sorry guys, it just didn’t fly so we’re taking it down” before they get into real trouble.

And given CNN’s seemingly ambiguous position on the whole issue of citizen journalism, I wonder when it’s going to know whether or not the site ‘worked’?