It was, yet again,another "defining" moment for on-line media. Most of the early details of the alleged affair between President Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky had emerged on the Web. Between Matt Drudge's Drudge Report and News-week's AOL site, and the enormous resources poured into the story by countless other on-line organizations,the best way to find out what was not happening in the president's private life was over a modem.
During that first, somewhat breathless week, as pundits fiercely speculated about what hour the president "would actually resign, on-line news sites continued to pump out "exclusive" stories. What was on the tapes, what Secret Service agents saw, what Vernon Jordan said to whom, what Betty Currie said to the grand jury. Unfortunately much of what was written in these stories was not true. In place of well-researched facts, news organizations ran pieces constructed on rumor, gossip and false leaks—just as long as they got it on-line first. Speed, not accuracy, was the benchmark.
Yet what was the most remarkable about this turn of events was how blase on-line news organizations were about these lapses in basic journalistic rules. At Editor & Publisher's Online News Summit in February in Seattle, more than a few executives from large on-line news sites crowed about their achievements during these early days of Interngate. They talked about numbers of visitors and how important on-line news had become to the overall news business.
When asked about problems with accuracy, however, they either shrugged it off, chalking it up to the vicissitudes of an immature industry, or in traditional journalistic fashion, denied the obvious and provided examples of how they hadn't rushed to publish false facts as news—on other occasions. (Since the conference, I've read comments of a few on-line news executives who angrily defended what they did, saying it was the future of journalism. God help us all.)
What none seemed to realize was how close we in the online media came to shooting ourselves in the foot. (I think we did, although we might have lost only a few toes.) Rather than being able to bask in the glow of breaking well-researched, hard-nosed, journalistically sound stories, on-line media types spent long hours defending their actions as criticism about their story decisions cascaded on their heads.
In the end, however, the situation was, to some degree, out of their control. After all, when you create an 800-pound gorilla, and the gorilla says it's hungry, you can't ignore it. And that's exactly what we've done. When you look at the number of 24 hour-a-day media outlets opened in the last 10 years (or even in the last five) on TV, cable and the Web, the appetite for "news"—or should I say content—is endless.
And if you take this bottomless appetite for content and combine it with the increasing corporatization of news organizations—and the need to keep the shareholders happy, rather than their readers/viewers/listeners properly informed—the pressure to skip a few steps in the journalistic chain of reporting becomes almost unbearable.
In other words, the soul of on-line journalism is in danger of being traded for the riches bought by—to quote Matt Drudge—"80 percent" accuracy. If news Web sites continue to skip a few steps, the results will be deadly. We will become the virtual tabloids of the '90's—read by thousands, even millions, believed by hundreds and all of them crackpots.
If the Web is ever to achieve its potential as the great new news medium, it's going to have to learn to ignore the intoxicating elixir of breathless immediacy, take a few steps back and check our facts. We can still get news out to people faster than we could in the past, but it can't be at any cost.
Recently Dianne Lynch, Chair of the Department of Journalism at St. Michael's College in Burlington,Vermont,wrote an article for the electronic edition of The Christian Science Monitor where she proposed some new guidelines for the on-line media in the '90's. I think they are worth repeating:
Slow down. Scoops are just a professional conceit; your readers don't care who got it first. They just want to trust that you got it right. The first time.
Refuse to quote anonymous sources. Forget that tired excuse that you have to do it because everybody else is doing it; it didn't work with your mother and it won't work with your readers, either.
Go back to work. Don't join the mob trampling the lawns outside of sources' homes. Important stories go unreported while you stand around in somebody's flower beds.
Stay out of it. Fascinating though you may be, you are not part of the story that your readers want to hear. Save your pontificating for the press bus.
Believe us when we tell you what we want. We do know what's good for us. We know that there are important events emerging around the world, events that have far greater implications than the tale of who saw whom doing what in the White House. We're as titillated as we can tolerate, so let's get back to the real news.
Just do it, to quote a too-harsh Nike ad. Stop complaining about the woes of the American media, its declining credibility and the pressures of the new media age. You know it's broken. Have the courage to fix it.
Tom Regan is Supervising Online Editor, The Christian Science Monitor's Electronic Edition.