News Breaks on the Web, But Can You Believe It?
When the Pulitzer Prize board meets this November in New York, its members will consider one of the most controversial proposals ever put before them: whether to establish a prize category for Web-based journalists.
It's an idea already embraced by jurors of the National Magazine Awards, offered annually by the American Society of Magazine Editors. Next year's ceremony will for the first time honor online magazine writers with a prize of their own.
Yet such newfound attention to cyberjournalists is tempered by concerns that stories broken on the Internet - where conspiracy buffs and assassination theorists can broadcast their ideas - are increasingly obtained by Web writers employing questionable sources and methods. "Online journalists are getting more attention but less respect," says Michael Kinsley, editor of the online magazine Slate.
No one fits that description better than Matt Drudge, author of an online tip sheet called the Drudge Report. Mr. Drudge is credited with being the first to report on Bob Dole's choice of Jack Kemp as his running mate in last year's presidential race, and with scooping the networks on the new, multimillion-dollar contracts for the cast of NBC's "Seinfeld."
Last July, when America Online began carrying the Drudge Report, an AOL press release touted Drudge as the "Walter Winchell of the electronic age," who would make other journalists play catch-up on stories unobtainable elsewhere.
And AOL was right: A few weeks later Drudge broke a story asserting that Sidney Blumenthal, a newly hired senior aide to President Clinton, had a history of spousal abuse. The accusation was picked up by other media outlets, including The Washington Post and New York Post.
The only problem with the story, Drudge discovered, was that it was false. He promptly issued a retraction, admitting he had "been had" by political sources he said were trying to use him. But Mr. Blumenthal was not satisfied, filing a $30 million libel suit last month against Drudge and America Online.
Above the speed limit
Rumor, gossip, and news on the Web move at muzzle velocity, speeding through an information culture with little time for journalistic methodologies. But without fact-checking or corroboration of sources, critics say, news on the Net is the equivalent of a passenger traveling 90 miles an hour without a seat belt.
"Speed is the enemy of accuracy," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "The reason newspapers tend to be more accurate than electronic media is that newspapers have a news cycle of about 12 hours, where a group of editors can paw over stories and second-guess them."
Likewise, says Mr. Rosenstiel, "Local TV makes more mistakes than network TV, and network TV makes more mistakes than newspapers. The reason isn't competence; it's speed."
It's a lesson ABC learned earlier this year when a headline on its Web site announced that Timothy McVeigh was found guilty in the Oklahoma City bombing trial - an hour before the judge read the verdict. At the moment the announcement appeared, another headline flashed on-screen indicating the verdict was not guilty. In its haste to be first with the story, a staffer at the site mistakenly released the two headlines simultaneously.
But speed isn't the only enemy of accuracy. When former ABC-TV correspondent Pierre Salinger said he believed a missile fired from an American Navy vessel caused the explosion of TWA Flight 800 last year, the story was covered by hundreds of media outlets around the world, from Paris Match to CNN. Mr. Salinger's source behind the story turned out to be an e-mail from a retired airline pilot in Florida.
Steven Levy, senior editor at Newsweek, likens such communication to "electronic graffiti." People who want to be taken seriously in cyberspace often cloak their messages with colorful graphics or authoritative language, he says. "That doesn't mean you should believe everything they say," he says.
Plenty of legitimate news
Of course, plenty of legitimate news on the Web exists at newspaper and network television Web sites, although their content is mostly recycled versions of what appeared in print or on the air.
Some of the most original sources of breaking news on the Web are at sites like CNET, a San Francisco-based online magazine that covers the computer industry. Recent CNET news included a study on why women want Web sites that build relationships and a prediction that India will have 8 million Internet users by the year 2002.
But sites like CNET are just a click away from the Tabloid News Services' Web page, which chronicled singer Michael Jackson's secret "last supper" with Diana, Princess of Wales. Or LondonNet, where a rumor page includes the theory that "Di and Dodi [Fayed] died as the result of a fiendish plot hatched by the world's florists."
And therein lies what makes the Web unique as a purveyor of information, says Rosenstiel. "We don't yet know where the boundaries of news and journalism are on the Web," he says.
"We do know the medium changes the nature of the product," he says. "The Web is a democratic place where accurate information exists side by side with information that is false."
But is it journalism?
Joan Konner, publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review and former dean of Columbia University's School of Journalism, says gossip sites like the Drudge Report shouldn't be judged as if they were journalism.
"Drudge isn't a reporter; he's your next-door neighbor gossiping over the electronic fence," says Ms. Konner. "When I was 16 years old, I was the editor of my camp gossip sheet. Does that make me a journalist?" she asks.
It's the kind of question a judge may soon put to Drudge. Legal experts say that the trial could be a turning point in the battle for free expression on the Internet. Much of the case is expected to revolve around whether libel laws can be fully extended into cyberspace.
But don't expect Mr. Kinsley to follow the trial on his computer screen. The Web's lack of quality control has led the editor of Slate to occasionally seek refuge in the vast wasteland of television.
During last year's presidential primary in New Hampshire, Kinsley says, he planned to follow the vote tallies and news of the day via the Web. "I was going from Web site to Web site, trying to find the results. Suddenly I thought to myself, 'This is exhausting.' So I turned on the TV and just watched the information roll by."
Kinsley adds, "Today, if I hear about a major breaking news story, I'll turn on my TV. I may be missing some cutting-edge insights, but at least I'm getting trustworthy information."