How should the mainstream media respond to lone-wolf cyber-reporting on the Internet?
This column was written Jan. 31 — 10 days after the Monica Lewinsky “scandal” broke. It appeared in the April 1998 issue of The American Journalism Review.
I was interviewed on the topic of ethics in online journalism on Minnesota Public Radio’s “Future Tense: A Journal of the Digital Age” on July 26 and 27, 1998.
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That e-mail, sent to 50,000 subscribers on Jan. 18, launched us into a new era in journalism, one that is befuddling mainstream newsrooms as they struggle to sort out their relationship with the Internet — and as they redefine their own news standards. A few observations:
• The gatekeeper’s role has changed.
We have entered a new media reality, one in which lone-wolf cyber- columnists like Matt Drudge have the ability to explode a major story onto the nation’s front pages. Traditional news organizations no longer have the exclusive province to decide what information enters the public arena. And that, in the long run, is a healthy development. Finally the Net has put the lie to Ben Bradlee’s boast: “News is what I say it is.”
• Journalists’ new role: authentication and context-setting.
The type of journalism served up in the early stages of this story — rumor, third-hand reports, hyperventilating speculation — cleared turned off the public. Within a week after the scandal broke, the public had rendered its verdict on the news coverage: revulsion. A Freedom Forum poll found that the top two adjectives used by Americans to describe coverage of the story were “excessive” and “embarrassing.”
With the rise of the Internet, 24-hour cable news, talk radio and tabloid TV shows, readers need a healthy reality check from the roar of the media circus. The public needs reputable news outlets to adhere to their core values of accuracy, credibility and balance to give stories like this context and perspective, a role that other media have forfeited.
• Different brands of reporting can thrive in cyberspace.
Net users don’t go to the Drudge Report for trustworthy news, they go for titillating tidbits about weekend movie grosses and Beltway cocktail party chatter that may or may not be true.
Call it journalism lite. (Drudge, who declined to be interviewed, has repeatedly balked at the term “journalist.” Here is where we’ve arrived in 1998: A gossip columnist refuses to be tarred with the epithet “journalist.”) Drudge has said the reports on his Web gossip sheet (www.drudgereport.com) are 80 percent accurate. Like it or not, this style of Internet wildcat reporting — heavy on attitude, light on facts — is here to stay, along with its obligatory disdain for the mainstream media and journalism’s ethical playbook.
To a large extent, that’s fine: Both traditional journalism and tabloid journalism have their rightful place in cyberspace. The Net, which runs the gamut from conspiracy theorists to the New York Times on the Web, can accommodate not just black and white but an entire spectrum of grays.
• Mainstream journalism need not lower its standards.
The worst of the journalistic excesses in the Clinton-Lewinsky coverage came not from online but from the establishment press, which decided early on to abandon longstanding tenets of independent reporting and verification of sources.
What propelled this drive toward lower standards? A vacuum of hard news, a drive for higher ratings, surely. But I believe it’s also due to broadcast news wanting to protect its traditional place in the media food chain as the medium that delivers breaking news first. The Internet’s speed and instaneity infringe on that turf, and many broadcast stations have become less concerned with being accurate than with being first.
Marvin Kalb, the former CBS News correspondent who is director of the Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, says, “Journalism ought to go back to something very old: checking before you report instead of reporting before you check.”
• Who says?
In this age of info-glut, consumers need to know the origins of a news report so they can make their own judgment about its reliability. Where a story originates from may be as important as the story’s content. At the very least, all news outlets ought to take a page from the New York Times, which, two weeks into this tawdry affair, ran a story delineating the origin of each of the allegations.
Kalb calls this “a sorry chapter in American journalism” and says: “The expanding new technologies and the new corporate emphasis on the bottom line have made it almost impossible for editors to summon up the courage to say no when they know, deep in their guts, this sort of innuendo and hearsay has served as a match thrown into a barrel of gasoline. I hope the editors prove all the skeptics and critics wrong. But I’m very pessimistic.”
If show-biz values and tabloid sensationalism triumph over journalistic values — if speed and competitive pressures outweigh caution, prudence and basic fairness — then indeed the industry is in serious trouble.