Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Internet: Will We Ever Be Able To Trust It?

Editor's note: The Internet is reshaping many things - two of the biggest are how we shop and communicate. For journalists, the Internet is an indispensable tool. It gives us unparalleled access to information. It allows us to connect with sources we ordinarily would have no access to. We can do extensive research. And we can access, post and send large amounts of information at speeds that weren't even dreamed of 5 or 10 years ago.

But with any new technology, there are other effects on society. Some of these are just starting to surface. Two areas worth mentioning: freedom of expression and our right to privacy. There is an ongoing debate over whether people should be allowed to post items anonymously - even if those comments defame the reputation of a business or individual. Another major area that has come into question is the accuracy of the information we are viewing. The two go hand-in-hand. Since anyone can post whatever they want, they can use the Internet to settle a score. Some people engage in this behavior. For the viewer, it is often difficult to determine the accuracy of what has been posted. Is it true? Is it a product pitch?

Sometimes it is hard to tell what is true and what is false. In the past, information was edited, checked and reporters were called upon to attribute their sources. This is not to say there never was a problem with the information. But media organizations (newspapers, TV stations, etc.) had rigorous policies dealing with corrections. Bad journalists were weeded out.

In the Internet world, everyone is a journalist (re: citizen journalists). Everyone has a megaphone. It is easy to disguise yourself and the true intention of what you are posting.

Some might argue that the Internet encourages people to post whatever they want no matter what it says (True or False).

Beyond mere opinion, the Internet offers financial incentives. The more outrageous the information, the more inflammatory the opinion, the more risque the video - the more attention (hits/views) the information receives. More views translates into an ability to reap financial profits in the form advertising.

The impact of this shift in behavior is just starting to emerge. You will read about later in this quarter about a businessman who loves it when people attack his practices and file complaints online because it improves his ranking in Google, leading to more customers. It may be perverse, but it works.

One previous post I made to this blog talks about female teens who transmit naked photos of themselves in an effect to gain attention (and acceptance) from male teens. The story I have posted here from the New York Times deals with an entire industry that is emerging designed to erase a digital past. The negative information may be true or untrue. We are all aware of Internet hoaxes .

But there is a social cost here, too. If someone posts negative (or untrue) information about you online, it can be harmful to you in both your social and professional life. What do you do? Internet posts can't easily be erased.I would like you to review this post and the links I have provided here. Next, I would like each of you to comment (and post) your thoughts about the challenges we face as journalists in an Internet era.

Journalists are required to check and make sure the information they use is factual and by all means accurate. But if much of the information we read/view is provided by people with an axe to grind and is filled with personal opinion and innuendo, how can we reliably use that information? How do we sort our whether what is simply reprocessed information with a new "spin" or angle?

And are we best serving the public by using secondary sources (another story or post) in any story we write or post we make? Doesn't the Internet in some ways make our job harder because of the difficulty it poses in checking the original source of a tip, post or story? Please post your thoughts and be detailed in your answers. - MT

Bryce Tom of Metal Rabbit Media.

NYT -THE Internet never forgets.

Just ask the New York City teacher who recently divorced his wife of five years. Drop his name into Google, and his ex-wife appears in pictures of vacations and Christmas parties. “It’s difficult when you’re trying to date and your ex is still in the picture, so to speak,” said the teacher, who didn’t want to make matters worse by having his name in a newspaper.

The same goes for Bryan, an advertising executive in New York City. He is an accomplished online marketer and New York University professor, but search his name, and one of the first Web results is a press release from the United States attorney’s office. Eight years earlier, he was charged with wrongfully receiving 9/11 grant money. “Even after all these years,” those links remained, said Bryan, who paid a $2,000 fine.

And then there is the Philadelphia physiologist who became unwittingly linked to a consumer advocacy site, when it listed him as a graduate of a distance learning school that was shut down. “I felt totally victimized because there was nothing I could do,” said the physiologist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want added attention. “My case load started to dry up.”

At first, some tried manipulating the Web results on their own, by doing things like manually deleting photos from Flickr, revising Facebook pages and asking bloggers to remove offending posts. But like a metastasized cancer, the incriminating data had embedded itself into the nether reaches of cyberspace, etched into archives, algorithms and a web of hyperlinks.

After failing to rid the negative sites on their own, most turned to a new breed of Web specialists known as online reputation managers, who offer to expunge negative posts, bury unfavorable search results and monitor a client’s virtual image.

Comments from readers:


  1. The emergence of citizen journalism and anonymous posting will create a greater demand for true journalists. It may just be wishful thinking, but I feel that readers will eventually get fed up with having to fact-check their own news. Media outlets are supposed to sort through the trash for the readers, giving them what is true and newsworthy. After the hype of being a citizen journalist has worn off, I think fewer people will turn to bloggers for news. That is not to say that there are not any bloggers/citizen journalists that don't do good journalism. There are. In the Dan Rather incident bloggers were the ones shed light on a false documents touted by CBS.
    It will become more evident along the way that true, trained, professional journalists are necessary in an online world where content needs to be vetted even more.

  2. Journalists should see secondary sources as a huge trap. As I mentioned in a separate comment on another blog post, an important part of a journalist's job is to vet sources (both human and nonhuman) to determine their motivations and biases. This is how we avoid being spun (brendae makes a good point on this). When one considers using a blog - or even a story from an established news outlet - as a source, that person must realize that the previous writers have influenced the original message. As you get farther away from the primary source, you find yourselves having to deal with more pre-existing filters that may or may not have been applied in a journalistically-sound way.

  3. In the editor’s note it stated the there was a problem with the accuracy of information on the web. The following story just showed how accuracy is a problem. The online reputation managers claim to expunge negative posts and monitor client’s virtual image. How much does it monitor? Does the manager go as far as covering up important facts that are important about a company or person? If a journalist, who does a ton of research on a company, finds that the company is doing something under the belt. After posting the article on the web, with all the correct sources names, the company hires a online reputation manager to cover up the story with positive stories about the company. Did that company, or even the manager, do something wrong? In a way it also undermines the work of real journalist, who goes out and does real work only to be covered up by someone who can pay.

  4. Although the Internet expands our options for information outlets, I definitely agree that it contributes to more inaccurate reporting. Too many people are quick to report on the first blurb they read about a subject, and as a result, the reporter may lose his or her credibility.

    I have used secondary sources when blogging, but I have been EXTREMELY cautious in doing so. I think external videos or text clips from reliable news sources, such as Reuters or AP, can add to a story when used correctly.

    I agree with the first comment, though: Web-based reporting could potentially create a demand for more fact-checkers on the Internet. Maybe there will be future jobs in this area (one can only hope).

  5. Not everyone in the internet world is a journalist; to be able to say that calmly is frightening to me. The online world is full of journalists, bloggers and twitter-er's who are in the race to be number one, writing pieces that bleed in order to get the most number of hits and viewerships.

    When did online news become a popularity contest? When did a reporters credibility become second to getting their name out first on the internet? When did accuracy not come to matter?

    In my opinion, citizen journalism has become a fad of the internet. Readers need content that is accurate, factual and true news, rather than information that is sloppy reporting and fiction. Internet viewers are content hungry.

    The internet is here to serve as the new communication news medium of the time. It should be no different than print in the content that it publishes; online journalism needs to hold onto the tradition of it's craft and publish pieces that are good, investigative articles (in addition to video clips and other links that add to the story).

    As the new generation of online journalists, we need to stay credible to our name, our sources, and our content. Facts and content need to thrive throughout the web, and serve to satisfy our readers. Citizen journalists are here for entertainment; true journalists will last forever.

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  7. Inspired by the above article, I Googled myself.

    Fabulous. The first result for my real name is the Formspring of a girl who has characteristics slightly like mine. The lazy searcher would probably assume it is me. Poor girl.

    Some of the results are my own, but some are another girl with my name who lives in our neighboring Kentucky and who also writes. Strange. However, if you Google me by the name my followers have ascribed me ("Cassie The Venomous," pretentions-sounding, I know, but that's how people find me these days), it's all me, and all good. Well, unless you count my excessive profanity as "not good"...

    If I don't want someone to find something about me online, I simply don't post it online. I have enough followers and watching eyes to know better. I can post something on Tumblr, for instance, and within one minute have it shared on the pages of 50 others. One regrettable thing can run rampant.

    Granted, I do have that regrettable Xanga I wrote when I was 13/14, but if you can find that, "you're a wizard, Harry."

  8. Journalists are under a lot of different pressures due to the Internet. We're under pressure to be the first to break news. We're under pressure to be accurate. We're under pressure to drive traffic to websites. These pressures are hard to deal with and they make it hard for journalists to do their job well.

    I think in the age of the Internet, journalists sacrifice accuracy in order to be the first to break a story. I think, more than anything, the Internet has put a huge pressure on journalists to be the first to report on something, whether it's just a Tweet or an actual article. In their scramble to be the first to post something, details aren't always double-checked.

    This makes me agree with what others before me have said. There is more of a need now in journalism for fact-checkers. There still needs to be some sort of editing system to make sure the facts are correct before posting a story.

  9. We are moving in a significant way toward the journalism of verification and curation. Of course disinformation will continue to be a part of the national discourse as it always has, but the opportunities to expose or question conventional information is expanding along with the Internet. What these laments about fact-checking invariably lack is any mention of the frequency with which frauds and lies are exposed on the Internet.

    Curating will become a key component of good journalism. We already do this in our own localized way every single day. We tweet, upvote, like, reblog, share, etc. all of the trustworthy things we think will benefit our friends or followers while consciously marginalizing reports that are deemed suspect.

    The power of community moderating shouldn't be underestimated. To call community journalism a "fad" is overly dismissive and a disservice to those who care about a community enough to pick up a pen (or keyboard, obviously) and report on it.

    As far as secondary sources go, they're not new. You wouldn't have reported that someone told you someone else said something in the time when typewriters reigned, and you shouldn't be doing that now. Only the media have changed, the method remains the same.

    Shoddy journalism will persist as it always has. To blame the Internet misses the point entirely. The consumer Internet is still so infantile (invented roughly 15 years ago) that making prognostications about the end of journalism is naive and unproductive. Just imagine what the Internet—or our lives for that matter—will look like in 15 years. There is an incredible amount of knowledge out there, and we are right now building the mechanisms to promote the credible and make sense of it all.

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  11. I agree with with then Courtney Hess said: not everyone can be a journalist.

    Creditability is a virtue that sets the "citizen" journalist apart from an "established" journalist.

    Unfortunately, many readers these days will eat up ANY kind of information on the web. At times, it's difficult to comprehend and filter out what articles are credible and factual and which ones are mere opinions with no factual backing.

    I'd like to place myself about the rest of the web population by claiming I only read my news from established news organizations, because that is not true. I get a lot of news through "tweets" which is shameful in a way, but if a "tweet" is interesting enough, I will "google" it and click through the first few articles that appear my way - not really looking to find if the article is from an accredited news organization or not until I actually stumble across an accredited news site addressing the news in question, at which point, my curiosity is instantly hooked because I feel it is a legitimate piece of information. In return, I will spend time I wouldn’t have before, reading the news by that organization thoroughly.

    Also, check out the NYT example listed above. It is a perfect example how an ordinary person on the web can be discredited through different forms of multimedia / social media which proves two things:

    1. Not everything can be believed on the internet

    2. The internet is a powerful tool for information

    This puts a unique burden on social media as a legitimate source of information. In many ways, it is (a lot of established news organizations are represented by their own twitter accounts, for example), but much of what is said through social media sites are also opinions that at times it seems the original source of information gets befuddled from what was originally meant to be.

    There's a huge audience to be reached through social media outlets and journalists are actively utilizing these rich modes of transportation to get their news across. With credibility from an already established news organization however, such a journalist also brings with him/her a reputable backing. And readers do notice this.

    The tricky thing to remember however is that fine balance between what can be considered credible on the web and what should not.

    Over all, great article! It hit on a lot of tough points that anyone interested in journalism (or interested in current news affairs, even) should be aware.

  12. n online media the use of secondary sources has become almost second nature.

    Bloggers have mastered the art of using linking to accredit primary sources of information, and media outlets have found themselves resorting to similar techniques to stay in competition with each other.

    Look no further than or where several stories can be found that are directly attributed to other media outlets. Phrases like "The Boston Globe reports" or "Report:" have become commonplace waysto inform a consumer while bypassing credbility issues.

    I believe such reporting is neither unethical or unjust. It is simply efficient. When an online consumer comes to your outlet for the latest information that they want to learn, you better get it to them any way you can. The online environment has heightened the competition of media immensely.
    (accidentally posted this as a blog post earlier this Q)

    Also, the sooner you run the "facts" from a secondary source on your site the sooner you can begin investigating further. This allows you to speculate, give your audience possible implications, and drive content that takes the consumer's mind further into the story.

    Getting the information from a secondary source down allows you to potentially keep the consumer on your site.