The Internet Is Influencing News Coverage — for the Worse

By: Steve Outing

After this week and the “All the President’s Women” scandal, is there any doubt that the Internet is profoundly affecting the way the news media operate?

The White House intern sex scandal seems like the right story for the Internet — it’s complex enough that television can’t fully handle it the way newspapers can, yet events break so fast that a print newspaper can’t deal with the speed. Enter the news business on the Internet, in which speed and depth (not to be confused with accuracy) are possible.

A public seemingly insatiable for news of the scandal is turning to the Web to satisfy its lust for this hot story. The Washington Post’s Web site, positioned at the hub of the story, Washington, D.C., was hit hard by Web surfers this week — so much so that it had to add extra servers to its site in order to handle the load. (At some times during this week, the site was too busy to handle all the requests and many Web users couldn’t get the site to serve up pages due to the overwhelming demand.) Other major news Web sites reported similar huge traffic boosts because of the scandal story.

The larger picture

That’s significant, of course, but the larger story here is how the traditional news outlets were rushed into publishing the scandal story — on their Web sites as well as traditional channels. Yes, they moved quickly to satisfy public demand (which on the Internet does not permit dallying; Internet readers want the news NOW, not the next morning or even several hours from now when the next TV newscast airs). But the traditional media also moved quickly — perhaps too quickly — because the nature of the Internet does not allow a media outlet the luxury of holding on to a story very long before it spreads like wildfire through the wires of cyberspace.

As you’ve probably read by now, Newsweek magazine was working on a story about the alleged Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair but chose to hold it back until its reporter could get more confirmation of what were very serious accusations. Enter cyber-rumor-monger Matt Drudge, who through his Drudge Report Web site and column on America Online pumped out word of the story before Newsweek could complete a responsible review of the facts prior to publication. At that point, the story exploded. Drudge is not credited with breaking the scandal story, only with learning that Newsweek had the story and scooping the magazine by announcing it to the world.

With the cat out of the bag, journalists of all stripes began chasing this story. Trouble is, there’s little that’s factual to go on, so the media horde is reporting mostly speculation and rumor. Journalism scholars are rightfully appalled at the way the scandal is being covered. No facts? Report the story anyway, the press responds. “After all, everyone else is running with it and we can’t be left behind.” This week, ABC News looked curiously like “Inside Edition” or “Hard Copy,” the tabloid TV news shows.

You can bemoan this situation all you want, but the forces of the Internet are going to make these type of scenarios more and more common. Should an editor want to hold on to or even spike a reporter’s controversial story, the writer or other insider can now leak word of the story to a new breed of cyber journalist, like Drudge. The Internet becomes an alternative news distribution channel in such cases — minus quality controls. Unlike newspapers, news magazines and television news programs, there’s often not the system of checks and balances to ensure accuracy when something’s published on the Internet. (Drudge, who’s become the poster boy for this new type of journalism, has made some well-publicized mistakes in his reports, and is being sued for libel by a White House official.)

Worse, new journalists in the Drudge mold — spurred on by his success — will appear to stake out their claim in the new media world. The Internet makes it possible for an unknown to publish independently, and with enough marketing smarts and perhaps a visible venue and partner like AOL (such as is the case for Drudge), the cyber journalist starts to get some notoriety with the public. Can we trust Drudge and his successors to get the facts straight? Sometimes yes, too often no.

Quality control?

Obviously, there’s a lot of junk, a lot of unreliable sources out on the Internet, promoting “facts” from their point of view. What’s worrisome from a journalistic point of view is that some of these pseudo-journalists will conduct themselves in such a way as to get a wide public view and come to be perceived as legitimate journalists. Some will come on to the Internet news scene and not have a point of view to promote, yet they are not subjected to the maxims of traditional journalism; can we trust their abilities and ethics?

What we’re seeing this week, I think, points to the good and bad that the Internet represents. It’s wonderful that the Internet medium permits people to embark on new journalistic endeavors outside of the cloistered world of traditional media, without the need for huge sums of money to enter the publishing world. The flip side is that what is presented as “news” on the Internet will increasingly be of lower “quality” — that is, there will be less care taken in ensuring accuracy of what is presented as news.

With this inevitable trend already in evidence — as I said, Drudge is only the first and most visible of a new Internet-spawned breed of pseudo-journalists — it is imperative that traditional media practitioners not stoop to the same level. If print and television journalists, and for that matter online journalists who operate under the maxims of responsible journalism, try to chase the new breed, then the news media as a whole takes another unfortunate step toward lowest-common-denominator journalism.

I hope that the news industry can resist that temptation.

Compounding the mistake

The Dallas Morning News this week ran a story on its Web site reporting that a witness to an alleged presidential sexual encounter with Monica Lewinsky would give evidence to the grand jury looking into the scandal this week. Later, the paper retracted the story, saying it could not substantiate the claim. Visitors to the paper’s Web site subsequent to the retraction saw a corrected story.

But in what can become a lesson for all news sites, the News’ site did not remove from its server the original story. It remained on the site with its original URL, although the News site’s home page and news index pages did not link to it. (The home page link pointed to a new URL that contained the revised story.)

Alas, the News’ Web editors apparently forgot that some news indexing sites had recorded the URL of the original story. Hence, a visitor to a site like TotalNews, which indexes daily news articles from many news Web sites, was for a while still being pointed to the old story even though it had been replaced by a corrected version on the News site itself.

Roman Godzich, president of TotalNews, says that what the News should have done is put wording about the retraction on the original story at the original URL. Then, people who found the story through a news index or other external Web site would get the correct information and could be referred to the revised article elsewhere. Don’t just remove such an article, he suggests, because that will cause readers who come through his and other sites to come upon a dead link. Either stick with the same URL and replace the content with the correct information, or append a correction to the original story. Not to do so risks readers who don’t come through the newspaper site’s home page getting erroneous information.

(TotalNews became aware of the situation, and on its link to the early News story it added the word “retracted.”)

The lesson, says Godzich, is that news site editors cannot expect readers of an article to always come through their home page. Often, a Web user will find a news story from a source (like TotalNews) outside of the news site’s control.

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company

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