Each month I have dinner with good friends who happen to be editors at three of the nation’s leading news organizations. Given our friendship and a common kinship to newspapers, conversation invariably turns to journalism and its current woes. As a recovering journalist turned digerati, I am left to defend “Dale’s Internet” during spirited after-dinner dialectic and wine tasting.
This month’s debate: Who screws up the most?
The debate begins with the claim “you can’t trust anything on the Internet.” The new twist is that my friends are convinced that Google, Wikipedia and a gazillion bloggers are not only spreading bad information but instilling bad habits in good reporters.
Reporters have become poor spellers who don’t check things, they contend, because they rely so much on that insidious web of misinformation and opinion. The editors worry that professional reporters are beginning to perform like the unskilled and distrusted amateurs of the Internet.
My friends are also upset with the error surcharge. They complain that newspapers and broadcasters pay a far higher price for making errors or expressing opinion than do Internet sites.
I wanted to tell them that the public expects more – perhaps too much – from professional news organizations and their promise of rigor, objectivity, and truth to power.
I also wanted to explain how the Internet itself acts an editing mechanism where editorial judgment is applied at the edges, sometimes after the fact, not in advance.
Instead, I yielded to the wine, the time and a respect for dedicated friends doing the hard work of a good profession
Then came the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. Near the end of the broadcast, Williams paused to announce a correction. The previous week, NBC reported that Russia had planted a flag on the seabed directly under the North Pole in a move seen as a symbolic claim on the resource rich region. NBC ran video footage from Reuters called “Russia plants flag under N Pole.” Reuters posted the story and video on its news site on August 2.
The problem was that a 13-year-old boy who saw the footage on NBC thought the Russian MIR submersible in the video looked a lot like the submersible used in the search for the Titanic more than a decade ago. Which it was.
Blaming Reuters, Williams acknowledged the error. Poof. It was gone.
Reuters merely posted this clarification above the story on its site: “This story contains file shots of Russia’s MIR submersible. The story also contains video of a submersible which was shot during the search for the Titanic in the Atlantic.” Poof.
The bad video tumbled without correction from one medium to the next. CNN, MSNBC, Fox and other stations ran it for days. Dozens of newspaper sites linked to it.
On the Internet, an error gets around like a lobbyist in Washington. Reputations are shaped by how quickly peers, critics, friends, experts and, yes, editors correct it. Participation in the process of setting the story straight is part of the currency, as well as the sport, of the Net.
It used to be that journalists were expected to be an expert on something. Today some 13-year-old probably knows more about the thermal tiles on the space shuttle than a reporter covering NASA. Chances are the 13-year-old is communicating with a larger network of readers on My Space. So why not use their knowledge network, even if the kid (or the reporter) may misspell “Endeavour.”
That’s the promise of We Media – the media environment where shared or connected knowledge is an opportunity, not a threat. As great as the promise of “truth to power,” interactivity and communications technology enable citizens to spread knowledge,
“Who screws up the most?” is not the question we ought to be asking at dinner parties, in newsrooms or on the Internet. We ought to be asking how skilled journalists can collaborate with connected, informed citizens to better make sense of a complex world.
Editors might help everyone with their spelling. Or they could blame an algorithm.