In the Internet age, does it make sense to read the newspaper anymore? Just look at what has been in the news lately.
This past April, a freelance reporter for The Boston Globe was dismissed after getting caught adding fictitious details to a news story. Previously, the Detroit Free Press temporarily suspended a popular columnist for writing ahead of time about an occurrence that wound up not taking place. In 2003, Jayson Blair resigned from The New York Times after editors discovered numerous fabrications and plagiarisms in his articles.
This isn’t new. In 1981, Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize, which was later rescinded, for a series of fake articles she wrote for The Washington Post.
Newspapers aren’t the only “old media” to be scarred with the scarlet letter of scandal. One of the factors thought to have contributed to Dan Rather’s resignation as CBS Evening News anchor earlier this year was “Memogate,” which involved, during the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign, his reporting as authentic a series of forged documents about George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service.
The blogosphere (the collection of Weblogs written by ordinary people) helped to expose the truth in the Memogate scandal.
There are those who feel that blogs and other new media, sometimes dubbed “people media,” will replace the old-guard media of disgraced professionals.
In some ways, I’m firmly straddling the fence on this one, with my feet planted in both camps. There’s pain anytime the new threatens the old. I write for both the old and new media, though I make my living from the former.
To see the new at its best, check out user-written and -edited Wikinews (http://www.wikinews.org) and its sister sites Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org), Wikisource (http://www.wikisource.org), Wikibooks (http://www.wikibooks.org), Wiktionary (http://www.wiktionary.org), and Wikiquote (http://www.wikiquote.org).
Blogs are also worth a gander. They’re typically less structured efforts where you can read the thoughts of specific individuals, usually commentary but sometimes news as well. Two good places to start reading or writing are Blogger (http://www.blogger.com) and the new Google Blog Search (http://blogsearch.google.com).
Internet discussion groups, oldies but goodies, are another way to read the views of others and share your own. They also allow you to find out about new developments from laypeople and insiders alike in a wide range of diverse and sometimes specialized fields.
Most of these discussion groups are Web-based, e-mail-based, or Usenet-based. Two good starting places are Yahoo! Groups (http://groups.yahoo.com) and Google Groups (http://groups.google.com).
The common theme with people media is that people typically aren’t paid for contributing news reports, opinions, and other content. And this is the crux of the debate (a debate that frequently occurs online) over the relative value of it. Is free more reliable, more useful, and more interesting than paid for?
Despite the reports of unreliability in traditional media outlets, I’d argue that the old, paid-for media is more reliable than the new, free media. Because professionals are paid, they’re accountable. As I mentioned earlier, if they fail to fulfill their duties, they’re gone.
I’d also argue that these failings get such widespread notice because they’re relatively rare and because journalism is diligent about policing itself and reporting on abuses. The same can’t be said about many other professions.
What’s more, paid professionals have the training and experience needed to distinguish news from rumor and self-promotion, recognize when a story that hasn’t been told needs to be, dig out relevant material that may not be immediately apparent, make the complex clear, and fact-check information that needs to be fact-checked.
The new media, on the other hand, can be very useful and very interesting. You can’t beat the Internet for finding things fast and for accessing a great diversity of views on a great variety of subjects.
Just keep this in mind: Caveat lector (Reader beware).
Don’t believe everything you read, and don’t judge a Web site by its appearance alone. A flashy site about a medical topic, for instance, could be a marketing tool for a company promoting its products. Try to find out who’s behind the information.
Similarly, look behind and between the words posted on blogs and in online discussion groups. Is the author trying to promote his own ends or be insightful and helpful?
Try to verify the same information elsewhere. This is particularly important if the information is at odds with your previous understanding or if you intend to use it for critical purposes such as an important health, family, or business decision. Librarians can be particularly helpful here.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or reidgold.com.