Speeding the news on the Internet
Ted Koppel & Bruce Koon warn of the dangers of trading accuracy for immediacy
This column appeared in the October 1997 issue of The American Journalism Review.
As online news matures, we’re beginning to see Web publications evolve into true news channels rather than warmed-over digital versions of their pulp parents.
While that term “channels” may seem strange when applied to an online newspaper, a year from now millions of us will be getting the news from channels we’ve chosen on our personal computers. Already, the New York Times and ABC News are the premium news channels on America Online. In August, Netscape released its new Netcaster browser, which will “push,” or “Webcast,” more than 700 channels of information from such sources as USA Today, CNNfn and CBS SportsLine. Microsoft, which will release its new browser this fall, has signed up the Web editions of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
As the online news world begins to cover news as it happens rather than once a day, are there risks that journalists with ink-stained backgrounds face in moving toward a broadcast model of Net news? Ted Koppel, anchor of ABC’s “Nightline,” thinks so. In his first interview on the subject of the Internet, Koppel has some words of warning for online reporters eager to reinvent the wheel of journalism.
“Reporting is not really about, ‘Let’s see who can get the first information to the public as quickly as possible,’ ” Koppel says. “It’s about: ‘Let’s see who can get the information to the public — 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 when you’re satisfied as a professional journalist that you’ve got the story and the facts have been verified, only then can you go with it.
“If we are 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. Ultimately, a journalist has a responsibility to separate truth from rumor.”
Some have suggested that the news is alive and ever-changing, but Koppel calls that “a collosal copout. 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 threshholds you have to cross before you go with it.”
We’ve seen competitive pressures in local TV news markets, where being first is often more important than being accurate. Does Koppel see a similar future for online news?
“There’s always going to be room for the outlet that says, `We’re not worried about geting 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 news organization — you have to maintain your quality while you’re being faster and better than the other guy on the block. But if you succumb to competitive pressures and you’re willing to sacrifice quality and context and completeness, I think that’s going to rear up and bite us in the ass.”
Bruce Koon, managing editor of the Mercury Center in San Jose, sounds a similar note of caution.
“There’s something to be learned from TV and the wire services in getting news headlines and summaries up on our Web sites,” he says. “But this rush to get the information out before it’s had a chance to settle and get some perspective — TV and technology have contributed to that rush to judgment, which hurts journalism and harms society in general.
“In TV, you’re dead if all your competitors have the story and you’re holding it back. On the Web, readers can find lots of sites reporting speculation and rumor. But then they say, ‘OK, now I want to know what really happened.’ They want information that has been vetted through all the usual checks and balances, and that only happens with a little bit of time.”
The Merc Center is one of the few online newspapers that covers breaking news with more than just wire service reports. Beat reporters from the Mercury News or rewrite editors from the Merc Center report on a range of timely stories, from high-technology business news and local sports to high-profile disaster news. The Mercury Center is now moving into coverage of Bay Area news, with multiple deadlines throughout the day — Koon calls them “scheduled news programs” — rather than a continual, around-the-clock deadline.
“A newspaper can afford to be a little more circumspect,” he says. “We don’t mind being beaten on a story. I’d much rather get it up there only after we feel comfortable with it.”
Amen to that.