Speed vs. context and accuracy in covering the scandal

Part five of Internet journalism and the Starr investigation

Because of the Internet, when a major story breaks, people now tend to go online. On the day the Starr report swooped into cyberspace, news sites saw their online usage surge. A poll by the Pew Resarch Center for the People and the Press found that the public turned to Internet sites in large numbers as a news source during the scandal. Journalists should be heartened by the knowledge that online users gravitated to the major national news sites: MSNBC, CNN Interactive, USAToday Online, nytimes.com, washingtonpost.com.

But they should not be smug or complacent about their role in cyberspace, for millions of users accessed the report directly — without the filter of the news media. A few years ago such a document could only have been conveyed to the public by reporters. Now it was instantly available to anyone with an Internet connection to read, dissect, forward to others, debate in an online forum, or print out and share with friends and neighbors.

Online columnist Katz says he received 25 or 30 copies of the report that people had e-mailed to him within a span of five minutes. “This was the first time in American history that millions of citizens were given access to a critical document at the same time as their elected representatives and the news media,” he says. “People reached their own conclusions about the document fairly quickly, without the Washington press corps, the pundits and Beltway politicians telling us what to think. People in positions of power have been rattled by the Net because they sense they’re losing control over the civic agenda. The Net spreads the agenda-setting around.”

More than ever we need journalism for analysis, interpretation, synthesis and context. Few of the millions of users who perused the report online read the full 445-page document. Fewer still read the hundreds of pages of supporting materials. In a time-deprived world, readers still look to journalists to divine the significance of news events, to fact-check and vett the material for accuracy and hidden agendas, to put events into perspective, to lift the curtain on the inner workings of government to get at the truth.

Users who read only the Starr report on the Net would have missed the full palette of illumination and context that print and online publications brought to the table. For example, latimes.com not only added the full report, White House rebuttal and breaking news filed by the paper’s Washington bureau to its “Clinton Under Fire” package, but hours later also posted several staff-written pieces that appeared in the next morning’s paper: a comprehensive look at the Starr report’s most significant findings, congressional reaction, local public sentiment, a look at how the media covered the report on television, a story on how to answer children’s questions about the scandal, a business story on the stock market’s reaction to the Starr report (stocks were up because the report contained no bombshells), and an editorial on the scandal. The print edition ran a 16-page special section with excerpts from the Starr report and Clinton’s defense.

Users could also have turned to other sources for journalism and community discussion. The online publications Salon, Slate, and Feed published lively commentary. Friends and strangers traded news, information and gossip about the scandal on hundreds of online communities. The New York Times’ Web site hosted its largest discussion forum ever. Bulletin boards on news sites overflowed and chat rooms on America Online brimmed to capacity. For at least one dizzying day, the Net had become the town meeting, or neighborhood barroom, of our times.

Journalism should be front and center to help enlighten and explain major public events, but it must also learn to share the stage with others.

Questions for discussion:

•    In the new information culture, where people have instant access to original source material online and where anyone can be an information gatherer, what then is the role of the journalist?

•    What should news sites have done to illuminate the Starr report beyond the simple act of posting the report on their sites?

The report’s aftermath

The Starr report remained newsworthy not just the week it came out. CNN’s Woelfel observes: “As more materials became public and as the impeachment process moved forward, we were able to link new stories back to the Starr report to add context to what was happening. It became a living document that we used over and over. It’s still up on our site for that reason and we plan to keep it up indefinitely.”

Ten days after the online stampede for the Starr report, a new round of Web mania erupted as visitors flocked to watch video of Clinton’s August 17, 1998, testimony before Starr’s grand jury. The House Judiciary Committee voted to make public the four hours of ostensibly sealed testimony the president had given before a federal grand jury the previous month. Latimes.com saw a significant bump in traffic that day. “We were frankly amazed at the tens of thousands of people who demonstrated they will use even low-quality video when something is of interest to them,” Gentry says. The site was able to provide both the live feed of the pre-recorded event as it was released by the House along with RealVideo snippets of key highlights.

Remarkably, several cable news operations reported wider viewership on their web sites than on their cable channels, tapping into the thousands of workplaces with PCs and high-speed Net access but no televisions. Because bandwidth-hogging video travels far slower over modem lines than does text, CNN.com took the unprecedented step of removing all its other video from the site so that users could call up the grand jury video segments at a reasonably brisk pace. It still remains the site’s busiest day yet for serving video.

Eleven days later, news sites again flexed their multimedia muscles when they posted audio tapes and transcripts of Linda Tripp’s phone conversations with Monica Lewinsky, released by the House Judiciary Committee. Until the Starr investigation, few news sites had gone through the trouble of producing video or sound files. As 1998 drew to a close, multimedia had become another quiver in the arsenal of many news sites.

A still-evolving medium

When the news broke of the Starr investigation in January 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.

By late 1998, Internet news had turned into a mass phenomenon. Washingtonpost.com saw its traffic jump from 25 million page views in December 1997 to about 70 million a month one year later. Other news sites saw similar gains. But more important than the phenomenal growth in visitors were the changes that occurred in the online news culture.

The Starr investigation jump-started an industry that had been slow to embrace the ethos of the Net. At latimes.com, live updates from the impeachment trial and more frequent use of multimedia 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.”

Throughout the online news industry, coverage of the year-long scandal investigation helped contribute to the following transformations:

•    Acceptance of online journalism’s place in the newsroom. Prior to 1998, many editors and publishers regarded the Net as a threat to their business rather than an opportunity for growth. Online staffs were looked upon as the odd ducks of a media organization, treated with more puzzlement than respect and often consigned to a far-flung backwater of the news operation. Cyberjournalists gained credibility with their print brethren when it became apparent that the public saw the Web as a valuable alternative channel for news. Increasingly, online staffs are now being integrated into the regular newsroom operation and are viewed as co-equal partners.

•    Breaking news on the Web. While a handful of online newspapers were breaking news stories on their Web sites before 1998, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal spurred major publications such as the Washington Post and USA Today to abandon their practice of not publishing stories online until they appeared in print. Throughout the scandal, the Post published stories in mid-afternoon on its Web site that would appear in the paper the next morning. Cooperation between online and print staffs increased at many publications.

•    Multimedia. A number of online publications made their first foray into multimedia by covering such elements of the Starr investigation as Clinton’s videotaped testimony and the Tripp-Lewinsky audio tapes. Web sites prize workers with such diverse skills. “Today a journalist has to be prepared to work in multiple media,” says CNN’s Woelfel. “Anyone who thinks he’s still working for a newspaper or a TV station is not paying attention.”

•    Community and interactivity. Online news publications saw a groundswell in bulletin board usage during the polarizing Starr investigation. Many people, some critical of Clinton, others upset that Congress and investigators did not heed the public’s majority support for the president, participated in public discussion forums for the first time. Interactivity, however, remained a foreign concept to many news sites, with few online operations fielding questions for their Washington correspondents, posting their e-mail addresses or facilitating chats with key figures in the controversy.

Beyond these trends, journalism is still sorting out how to interact with the Internet. At the outset of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, news coverage became shaped in part by the competitive pressures wrought by digital and electronic media. Much of the early coverage emphasized speed, sensation and conjecture over accuracy and even-handedness. Woelfel says he sensed in the early going that, “there was an attitude of, ‘I don’t know if we could put this in the paper but we could put it on the Web site.’ That clearly doesn’t fly.”

Katz of the Freedom Forum applauds news sites that published the report online but suggests that newsrooms are being dragged reluctantly into a new era of openness created by the Internet. “The overwhelming majority of newspapers would not have published the Starr report in print if the Internet did not exist,” he says. “They’re afraid of being marginalized into irrelevance.” But he thinks newspapers did not go far enough and may have missed a historic opportunity to embrace the ethos of the Net.

“A woman in the Midwest wrote to me saying her paper had edited out all the most explicit parts of the Starr report while her 12-year-old son was upstairs reading it on the computer screen. Nothing makes newspapers look more ridiculous than withholding information that kids can obtain with the click of a mouse,” Katz argues. “Newspapers have to realize the world has changed. Journalists are now competing with a medium that is the freest part of the information culture. Online, people can question authority, they can be sexually explicit, they can hold you accountable for your reporting. Journalism is losing an entire generation of young readers because they haven’t adapted their newsroom culture to the new freedom that’s in the hands of today’s young adults.”

Questions for discussion:

•    Do you agree with Katz that newspapers look foolish when they edit out material that can easily be found online?

•    Overall, do you think the Internet has had a positive or negative effect on news organizations?

A higher place for speed — or accuracy?

In early 1998 some journalists shared a disquieting sense that perhaps reporting online would be governed by a different set of still-emerging rules. Speed and immediacy seemed to have a higher place on the Internet. Quality and accuracy on news sites did not attract large audiences. News in many corners of the Net seemed to be of a lower variety. Central to this sense of disquiet was the success of Drudge — his gossipy brand of reporting, his own estimate that he got his facts right 80 percent of the time, his boast that he passed along tips and rumors without checking their veracity. Journalists worried that the new face of online journalism might bear some resemblance to Matt Drudge and his Walter Winchell-style hat.

What happened instead was heartening. The Wall Street Journal and Dallas Morning News relied on anonymous sources, gave in to speed journalism — and got winged for it. Print media pulled back from its tabloid excesses. Online news sites generally distinguished themselves with coverage of the Starr report and the subsequent House impeachment and Senate trial of the president. And the public responded throughout the crisis by gravitating toward reputable news sites that set high journalistic standards and stuck by them.

Web journalism will forever wrestle with the lack of fixed deadlines and the pressure to go with a nearly finished story. How will it play out? Naughton worries that today’s turbocharged world of cable networks, the Internet and a 24-hour news cycle threatens to undermine traditional journalistic standards. “A journalist in the digital age works in a time-compressed, speed-driven environment, far too often without the debate about tone and propriety that we Watergate geezers would have with our editors,” says the veteran journalist who covered Washington for eight years as White House correspondent for the New York Times. “There is some role in journalism for reporters to tell people what they think. But the most part it’s their obligation to tell us what they found.”

Naughton’s Watergate analogy seems apt. Woodward and Bernstein broke the Watergate story bit by bit in the early 1970s, printing only what they could confirm with multiple sources who had direct knowledge of the facts. They knew that if they passed along damaging accusations from anonymous sources that might prove unreliable or unfounded, their credibility would crash and burn. Other news outlets had confidence in the rigorous story-vetting process inside the Post newsroom.

Online columnist Katz says journalists must not be seduced by immediacy of the online medium. “It’s true that the Net might spook journalists into reporting something prematurely,” he says. “But that’s an abdication of responsibility. The same rules apply: You report something when it’s ready to be reported, and not a minute sooner.”

Owles, national producer for the New York Times on the Web, agrees. Ultimately, the web and print versions of the newspaper share a common news philosophy, he says. “The same journalistic principles apply. We use different tools on the Web, but we share the same standards as the print side.”

Journalists starting out in the field would do well to draw on something very old, the longtime unofficial credo of The Associated Press: “Get it first, but first get it right.”

In the end, journalism is journalism. The same rules that apply offline also apply online. In today’s souped-up media universe, our craft needs to honor speed but elevate news judgment to a higher plane. As we adapt to the new technologies and reaffirm our news culture, it’s up to us to hold on to the timeless values of journalism: accuracy, trustworthiness, integrity, fairness, balance. Every minute of the day, journalists should remember that we are still in the business of truth-telling, even if, in this wildly competitive era, it may take an extra phone call or interview to get at the truth.

Standards matter, no matter the medium.

Questions for discussion:

•    How do you balance the need for accuracy and completeness with the competitive pressures of the Internet, a medium where there’s a deadline every second?

•    The advent of radio and television introduced new competitive pressures of speed and immediacy to the news industry. Does their development offer guidelines for us?

•    Do the old standards of accuracy and checking sources apply, or are new ones needed for the Internet age?

•    Should speed be the dominant ethic of Web journalism?

•    Should the fear of losing the new Internet generation be a factor in these considerations?

•    Do the positive aspects of coverage on the web, as they developed in the Lewinsky story, outweigh the problems?

•    Do web news operations and their coverage require recommended standards and procedures of checking facts and sources? What do you think of the checking procedures that some news organizations devised for the story? Could they be changed or improved on?

•    What about new problems of libel law? Who’s liable? At present, if an AP story, say, is libelous, any newspaper or broadcast outlet that runs it also is liable.

•    Where is Matt Drudge today?

In this report

Introduction: Internet journalism and the Starr investigation

Part 2: Revisions on the fly: Two case studies

Part 3: The sourcing problem

Part 4: The Starr Report

Part 5: Speed vs. context and accuracy in covering the scandal

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