Some kook (or some degenerate who stood to make a quick profit) spent two seconds braying on the Internet on Friday that Apple's ( AAPL) Steve Jobs was rushed to an emergency room with a heart attack. The market promptly attacked Apple's stock.

Since then, the business media have been analyzing the incident to death. In the ever loyal service of you, the savvy investor, The Business Press Maven has put on his hip-high boots to wade through all this analysis. I've fished out some of the best and worst so that you can move on into the future safely, without any leftover misleading notions from this misleading event.

A common takeaway from the mainstream media was that citizen journalism should not be trusted. True enough. You should never automatically trust what you read -- and you need to be even more careful when a writer (or brayer) has no editorial oversight. But headlines and leads such as this pair from the San Francisco Chronicle leave a big element out of the equation:

Headline: " CNN discovers downside of 'citizen journalism.'"

Lead: "The Jobs incident was the second time in a week that mainstream media organizations have been embarrassed by their online citizen journalism arms -- sparking debate about the accuracy of reports from these Web sites and showing how it takes only a few minutes for a scurrilous rumor, placed on a site without sufficient editorial checks, to inflict damage."

That citizen journalism should not be trusted is obvious, but the inherent implication that edited journalism can be trusted is a dangerous one. Remember that the Steve Jobs obituary was released by Bloomberg, and it was CNBC that reported that Warren Buffett called the dollar "worthless" when he said it would be "worth less." Professional journalist outfits both.

We can go on and on -- and it bears mentioning (and the Chronicle did well to) that Friday's nasty planted rumor did not gain wider notice until a more mainstream magazine ran hard with it: "By 9:25 am, the widely read online magazine Silicon Alley Insider had picked up the item."

Silicon Valley Insider later published a hand-wringing, contorted explanation for giving the rumor a plea boost, essentially offering the nihilistic excuse that the Insider did not know whether the item was true or not. It was just throwing it out there for you to judge. If you see such an on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand treatment of a hard-and-fast truth (he's in the emergency room!), always assume it's false.

That Apple left itself open to mass panic is a big reason I've been warning investors about the way in which the company has dealt with the issue of Jobs' health. CNBC was right to place a portion of the blame on the victim:

"The trouble with Apple: the company's secretive nature, its carefully crafted image, Jobs' history of health issues and his intrinsic importance to the future success of the company all contribute to the effectiveness of these rumors in moving Apple shares. ...

"It's not true. The rumor is not true. But the reaction to it just goes to show the enormous insecurity some traders suffer toward Apple and its shares. And how easy it is to manipulate this stock. That in itself is an unfortunate risk factor investors have to accept if they're going to put their hard-earned cash into this company. How unfortunate. But such is the ridiculous climate on Wall Street right now."

Ditto here , from Minyanville:

"Down 40% and whipsawed again by rumors of Steve Jobs' health, can we please simply concede that Apple's board of directors needs to stop fighting a rear guard position of denial and defending the stock by speaking honestly about the man's health? It's not about being right. It's about protecting shareholders."

The Wall Street Journal was right to note that the issue here was not just citizen journalism but citizen journalism given a veil of absolute legitimacy because of its affiliation with CNN. That's something for investors to be on the lookout for, but remember: Reading is not believing, no matter the source or the source's affiliation. From the WSJ (emphasis not mine):

"Were this to have appeared on a random stock messaging board somewhere, it would likely have had little impact, but CNN has put its weight behind this iReport endeavor, saying on its Web site that 'we've launched an independent world where you, the iReport.com community, tell the stories we're not used to seeing. And the most compelling, important, and urgent ones may get seen on CNN.'"

Here is another good lesson learned from The Wall Street Journal. The assumption might be that rookie investors, day-trading message board trolls and others are the ones who are felled by such rumors. But especially in such a nervy environment, the big boys are taken for a ride too:

"The volume of Apple trades spiked soon after the iReport story first appeared, meaning it wasn't just Joe Web Surfer selling Apple. One Wall Street chief information officer told us Friday that his company has developed systems that treat the Web as a big database that it mines through for information.

"In particular, his organization is looking for news tidbits or blog posts that might give his traders insight into how a stock will behave before anyone else. The information doesn't have to be true, he stressed. It just has to reflect the mood of the market. And the market freaks out when people think Steve Jobs is ill."

In the end, please heed your friendly neighborhood Business Press Maven: No matter who the source, don't reflexively believe what you read.
At the time of publication, Fuchs had no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this column.

Marek Fuchs was a stockbroker for Shearson Lehman Brothers and a money manager before becoming a journalist who wrote The New York Times' "County Lines" column for six years. He also did back-up beat coverage of The New York Knicks for the paper's Sports section for two seasons and covered other professional and collegiate sports. He has contributed frequently to many of the Times' other sections, including National, Metro, Escapes, Style, Real Estate, Arts & Leisure, Travel, Money & Business, Circuits and the Op-Ed Page. For his "Business Press Maven? column on how business and finance are covered by the media, Fuchs was named best business journalist critic in the nation by the Talking Biz website at The University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Fuchs is a frequent speaker on the business media, in venues ranging from National Public Radio to the annual conference of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. Fuchs appreciates your feedback; click here to send him an email.

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