The following teaching notes accompany Internet Journalism and the Starr Investigation. Both are scheduled to be published in the fall 2000 by Columbia University Press.
By J.D. Lasica
Most journalism students today have grown up using the Internet as an important way of receiving news. They are likely unaware of the various stages of its development and may accept current practices as the only possible way of communicating. This case was designed to help students think through the challenges the Internet created and the choices journalists have made.
Use of the Internet slowly broadened from use by the technologically savvy to use by the general public as a form of communication. According to public opinion surveys, as late as 1997 only 37 percent of the public went on line, but by the summer of 1999 half of those questioned reported having used the Internet (Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach, Warp Speed [New York: Century Foundation, 1999], p. 11).
The eight-month investigation as to whether President Clinton had had a sexual affair with a 24-year-old intern was a central force in the Internet’s coming of age. When Matt Drudge broke the news of the Starr investigation in January of 1998, Internet news was still in its infancy. Broadcast television, newspapers, and magazines-old media-drove the often inflammatory coverage. By the time the Starr report was released eight months later, the tables had turned: the Internet largely dictated how the story played out, and online news organizations responded with respectful, restrained, serious coverage. And by then the role of individual “cybermongers” like Drudge seemed to have faded.
The Starr investigation jump started an industry that had been slow to embrace the ethos of the Net. At latimes.com, the posting of live updates from the impeachment trial and the more frequent use of multimedia news sources established practices that were among the legacies of the Clinton Lewinsky story. “One of the side effects of the scandal was the impact it had on the way we do things on the site,” says Matt Stodder, online politics editor. “Just as the space program raised the level of technology in different areas of society, the scandal raised our competency level in dealing with audio, video, interactivity. It enhanced our proficiency in covering other major stories, like the Yugoslavian war and 2000 presidential election.”
But in addition to the positive attributes of the Internet, enhanced speed and depth of reporting, the Internet poses challenges to journalists in meeting some of the most basic responsibilities of journalism: truth, accuracy, and fairness.