As we turn to the web for more and more of our news, the reliability (or lack thereof) of online sources becomes an increasing concern. In some ways, the advent of new media is a good thing in that it can diversify our news sources and increase coverage by engaging citizens as journalists but in other ways, it serves to weaken facts or strengthen falsehoods.
My biggest issue with the debate on online journalism. It seems to be predicated on three axioms about print journalism before the Internet that aren’t true: (1) newspapers were unbiased, (2) newspapers were accurate; and (3) journalists were honest, educated individuals. The Internet can both repair and exacerbate the problems of traditional media on these points.
Newspapers have long printed what they thought the most interesting articles would be on the front page under big headlines to grab readers’ attention. This practice is not exclusive to the dime-Tabloids, even the big and mighty The New York Times has a euro-centric front page, and attention-grabbing human interest stories below the fold. An article about a nanny-stabbing two children on the Upper West Side of Manhattan was the lead story a few weeks ago, not the countless deaths of children in Afghanistan. The Internet (combined with a few violations of privacy) allows the process of determining which stories will be most interesting to you to be democratized based on what your friends are posting about thus giving any story the potential to grab your attention.
By choosing what and how to report, papers allow for hidden bias to enter their stories. Journalists are human and we can’t pretend that their individual values don’t at times affect their reporting. In addition, placing an editorial on an issue one page after coverage of the issue undoubtedly influences a reader’s view on said issue. The Internet allows for many sources to have a voice, ideally averaging out each voice’s individual bias. Alternatively, by potentially limiting your news sources to your friends, the Internet has the potential to amplify bias based on preexisting social identifiers.
It wasn’t only simple misquotes and incorrect facts that were common before the Internet. I still have the election on my mind, so we’ll stick with the classic example of “Dewey Defeats Truman.” The Chicago Tribune’s deadline for its issue the Wednesday after Election Day fell before results from the 1948 Presidential Campaign were in, so, using polls conducted before Election Day they went to press with the story of Dewey’s triumph. Truman ended up winning, and the now infamous picture was taken the next day. By making corrections immediate and sources more numerous and diverse the Internet has the potential to improve accuracy in reporting. On the other hand the web also allows for lies to take hold and spread like wild fire.
To find a case of a fake journalist one need only look as far as Jayson Blair of the New York Times.
All of this is not to suggest that we’re better off allowing anyone to report a story in 140 characters or less, but rather that the advent of new media presents the opportunity to erect a new, better journalism in place of the old one. Journalism 2.0 will take advantage of the opportunities provided by the Internet while preserving the ethics of traditional journalism. The most important change brought by new media is that the journalist and the audience can be the same, reporting is increasingly becoming a collaborative process.
Indeed, as Karl Rove demonstrated on Election Day, sometimes, even news reported by one’s own professional legacy media network can be open to debate (if only by you), and that open debate does not always increase reliability.
Despite exceptions like Rove, traditional media has evolved to allow for an accepted hierarchy of veracity between sources. Newspapers and network news have long aspired to be accurate and unbiased, seeking a broad audience. With print media, readers can gauge the dependability of a publication based on its look, feel, and price, even if one knows nothing about it. On television, networks fight to provide the most trustworthy face to deliver the news. Our goal should be to prevent in Journalism 2.0 what happened on cable news as the channels proliferated – Networks sought out a niche audience by serving to their biases (of course, some channels take this a step further than others, cough Fox News cough, amen MSNBC amen). We need to come up with a way to maintain news-neutrality – and ideally improve accuracy – in spite of proliferating sources.
The promise of new media is that the quantity of sources will be so great that it will drown out each individual-biased voice and allow a neutral and accurate report to rise up in popularity. In this scenario however we become more susceptible to the biases of our contacts as certainly specific social groups will be more susceptible to particular leanings. The question then becomes whether we need some sort of moderator (say, a traditional journalist — or a journalistic version of Google’s page rank) to sort through the noise and identify the most important. The news is not as black and white as an Amazon review; we can’t simply average the facts to get rid of partiality. When 140 characters is enough to amplify a falsehood and even “traditional journalists” can’t control themselves on Twitter, how do we ensure that the right facts are averaged?
Society needs news and investigations more than it needs profitable newspapers. Just like newspapers evolved an accepted hierarchy of truthfulness (or, truthiness) so too do I have faith that both the Internet and users of the internet will evolve to build a new and improved hierarchy. The good thing about the internet as it currently stands is no one has “great power” and thus no one is trusted with “great responsibility.” I don’t know how to save newspaper’s profit margins, but I have faith that with the openness of the internet — information will come out — initially most likely from either biased sources with axes to grind, or from wholesale release of information via ‘wikileaks’ — and that some combination of blogs, Wikis, sharing and ratings will result in identifying the stories and curators that are the most accurate and most important.