Ted Koppel: Will online news ‘bite us in the ass’?

The veteran ‘Nightline’ anchor has some words of warning for online reporters eager to reinvent the wheel of journalism

Immediacy has never been a strong suit of Web news among the mainstream media. But in the coming months, dozens of content providers — from giants like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to small-town weeklies and dailies — will team up with Netscape, Microsoft, PointCast and other push-news services to broadcast their own “channels” of breaking news right to a user’s desktop.

Ted Koppel

Ted Koppel

That promises to fundamentally reshape the online news landscape. What risks do these traditional print organizations face in moving toward a broadcast model of Net news? I posed the question to Ted Koppel, whose 1996 book “Nightline” dissects how television has reshaped news values in our lifetime. Koppel, who surfs the Web only infrequently, has some words of warning for online reporters eager to reinvent the wheel of journalism. This is his first interview on the subject of the Internet.

New forms of media like PointCast seem to be ushering in an age of instantaneous news on the Internet. What lessons do print journalists need to learn from their broadcast brethren?

Koppel: First of all, it’s not totally analogous to what I do or what my colleagues Peter Jennings or Dan Rather do. We have a deadline in the same way that my newspaper colleagues have a daily deadline. Going on live is not something we do most of the time. Now, let me ask you, is there such a thing as an online deadline?

Sure, it’s continual, around the clock.

The deadline is when you’re satisfied as a professional journalist that you’ve got the story, the facts have been verified, and then you go with it.

What I thought you were going to ask about was the issue of all the dubious news reports floating around on the Internet. One of the problems that I see — and not much has been made of it — is that the credibility of any news report depends on the reputation of the source. To the degree you don’t know the source of the material, that needs to be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. There is all manner of dubious information on the Web, and whether it ends up in the hands of Pierre Salinger, who gives it more credibility than it deserves, or whether it leaches into the public consciousness in some other manner, a journalist, as an editor, has a responsibility to ultimately separate truth from rumor.

The Internet’s immediacy seems to be one of its most attractive features. It gives people a greater sense of participation and immediacy —

Or a greater sense of paranoia about their government and the press and coverups and so on.

Some of the proponents of push media say that reporters shouldn’t report stories just once a day, they should break stories all day long by printing what they know when they know it and then updating it as additional information becomes available. Are there perils in reporting information the minute you get it?

Of course there are, and that goes back to making sure that we know who the reporter is. The main function of reporting lies in the sorting and assisting, the editing, the putting into context. Reporting is not really about, `Let’s see who can get the first information to the public as quickly as possible.’ It should be about `Let’s see who can get the first information to the public as quickly as possible — as soon as we have had a chance to make sure the information is accurate, to weigh it against what we know, to put it in some sort of context.’ Only after all that is done, then, when one of us goes on the air live with a breaking news story, we try to do that in an ad lib form with whatever reservoir of information we have on a particular story.

If we are now moving into an era in which ... speed is the main criteria of putting something online, then I think that's dangerous.
— Ted Koppel

Take an example from a few years ago, a plane hijacking in the Middle East. Peter Jennings happens to have had a long history of reporting on events from the Middle East, and he is able to tap into that well of knowledge to provide viewers with context and perspective. Now, if we are now moving into an era in which reporters are pressured to get it online before we have a chance to check and edit the material — if speed is the main criteria of putting something online — then I think that’s dangerous.

Whether you have one or 78 deadlines a day in your online organization, I’ve got no problem with updating the news continually. But where we need to be cautious is that we don’t get pushed beyond that point into what I call ‘McThought,’ or the journalistic equivalent of fast food. There has been a tendency in network television for certain news executives to be watching a bank of television screens and seeing a news report on a competing news program and saying, `Let’s go with that,’ even though we haven’t had a chance to verify the information. Now, that’s probably not applicable to the online world.

Perhaps it’s too early to tell. I wanted to ask about the suggestion I’ve heard from some broadcast journalists that the news is alive, that no story is ever finally written —

That’s a colossal cop-out.

Why do you say that?

Well, it suggests that all we have to do is put any information we collect on the air because we can never hope to have it all anyway. No, there are several thresholds you have to cross before you put it on the line and go with it.

Such as?

Like getting your facts straight. Let’s take an example. A bulletin breaks on the wire. All you know is that a plane has gone down over Pittsburgh. Do you go on the air with that?

I’ve seen those kinds of news bulletins.

I don’t think you have enough information to go on the air with it yet. I have no right to terrify every person who has a family or a friend flying in the Eastern corridor. You need to at least narrow it down. What is the airline? What is the embarkation point? What is the destination? And even then, I’d like to know, are there any survivors?

ABCnews.com just recently launched on the Net. As more and more news organizations join the fray, isn’t it inevitable that Net news will become ratings-driven, with a kind of tabloid mindset where the premium is on getting the story first rather than getting it right?

That depends on what you’re buying. I don’t think that `Inside Edition,’ or any of the lighter, frothier so-called news and entertainment shows on the air has much to do with `Nightline.’ It’s a different audience. We’re looking for different things. But there’s always going to be room for the outlet that says, `We’re not worried about getting it first, we’re about getting it right.’

As a news consumer, I’m more interested in the quality of the information I’m receiving. Whether you’re the New York Times, or Wall Street Journal, or Washington Post, or Los Angeles Times — or whatever your particular news organization — you have to maintain your quality while you’re being faster and better than the other guy on the block. But if your competition reaches the point where you’re willing to sacrifice quality and context and completeness, I think that’s going to rear up and bite us in the ass.

JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT