Getting the info right remains important to journalism, no matter the platform

Filed Under (Skills) by on 05-04-2010 and tagged

Great piece in today’s New York Times about SNOPES.

Debunkers of Fictions Sift the Net

SNOPES is a great place to get hard-core info about all those rumors and urban legends. (I subscribe to their daily updates. It well worth the read.)

Why is SNOPES so good and why is it needed?

Considering all the crap and lies that come out of Internet postings, e-mails and talk radio it is necessary to have a place to get the straight dope.

Oh. Wait a minute. I thought the news media were supposed to do that.

But how do you deal with the avalanche of crap that comes from multi-media sources?

Along with the freest access to knowledge the world has ever seen comes a staggering amount of untruth, from imagined threats on health care to too-easy-to-be-true ways to earn money by forwarding an e-mail message to 10 friends. “A cesspool,” Google’s chief executive, Eric E. Schmidt, once called it.

SNOPES was founded by David and Barbara Mikkelsons as a way to pursue their hobby of folklore and urban legends. It became much more.

“Rumors are a great source of comfort for people,” Mrs. Mikkelson said.

Snopes is one of a small handful of sites in the fact-checking business. Brooks Jackson, the director of one of the others, the politically oriented FactCheck.org, believes news organizations should be doing more of it.

“The ‘news’ that is not fit to print gets through to people anyway these days, through 24-hour cable gasbags, partisan talk radio hosts and chain e-mails, blogs and Web sites such as WorldNetDaily or Daily Kos,” he said in an e-mail message. “What readers need now, we find, are honest referees who can help ordinary readers sort out fact from fiction.”

Even the White House now cites fact-checking sites: it has circulated links and explanations by PolitiFact.com, a project of The St. Petersburg Times that won a Pulitzer Prize last year for national reporting.

Note that PolitiFact.com is a project of a newspaper and won a major award.

What this points to — for me — is that the basics of good journalism need not change just because the platform changes. And this issue is even more important now with the sales of the iPad.

So what if reporters today have to worry about print, sound and video. Those are technical skills that anyone can learn.

What is important is the integrity of that reporter. Has he/she told the storyin a fair and honest manner? Has the reporter checked the information to make sure it is accurate?

Too often what is passing for “citizen journalism” is just what the public complains about. One source stories. “Hot” words that indicate a bias. And weak fact-checking.

As I told a class of journalism students at George Mason University last month, the editor is a vital part of the news reporting process. The editor helps calm down the reporter to make sure he/she has all the facts necessary to write a fair and honest accounting of the event being covered.

And it is the lack of the editor (or at least a serious editing process) that most hurts “citizen journalism” as exemplified by many blogs and Tweets.

The iPad will make more stories more easily available to people. But what good is having access to a lot of stuff is damned little of it is accurate or balanced.

Way back in 1996 or so at a DC SPJ professional development program, we talked about the threat the Internet poses to the news media. At the time it was not the fear of free access destroying the newspapers — few newspapers were online and those that were charged for access. It was the “Balkanization” of news access. (If you are under 40 years old, look this term up.)

Many of us believe that good journalism is not presenting the news people want to see/hear, but rather the news they need to have in order to be informed citizens of a democracy. Being able to limit one’s news intake to only one perspective, we argued almost 15 years ago, the political discourse will become shrill and democracy is threatened.

Interesting how a bunch of “old time” journalists could see the future so well on this point. Too bad we could not (can not)  figure out how to fix it.

3 Responses to “Getting the info right remains important to journalism, no matter the platform”

  1.   Susan Carson Cormier Says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. There are so many “stories” being circulated out there that you never know what to believe.

    At the National Association of Citizen Journalists, we try to attack that issue by teaching our members to get all sides of the story, and to check and double check facts.

  2.   Andy Schotz Says:

    Very well put, Dan. I agree.

    And I love Snopes. It’s one of my favorite sites, both for what it and what it represents. Every time I get a “holy moley” breathless e-mail via a chain, I go to Snopes, find the debunk and send it back. I tell the sender to pass along the truth to all of the same people, in hopes of undoing the spread of myth.

  3.   www.desperatejournalism.com Says:

    Getting the right info is what modern journalism is about. You get there before the others do. If you can’t, there is always cut and paste. Journalism used to be about factual information buy now, it’s just getting the information out there. We’ll check for facts later! lol