Speed Versus Accuracy Is Not Just A Web Problem


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Last updated April, 2002

The Need for Speed | It's not Just a New Media Problem | The Web Sometimes Become a target |
The Web Might Have Less Deadline Pressure |

The Need For Speed

Hitachi employee Asuka Watanabe displays the company's first PDA he Internet provides news when we want it, where we want it, and how we want it. Online news has already become a staple in millions of people’s daily information diet, largely because of the convenience it provides.

The speed of the information highway is also transforming consumer’s expectations of the media. Consumers are no longer satisfied with periodic news delivery – reading the morning paper and watching the network’s nightly news – now they expect constant and instant news delivery.

New communications technology places even more pressure on journalists to be fast. PDAs - such as the next generation Palm Pilots; I-mode - mobile phones that doubles as a miniature Web browser, and other new technology are literally taking the show on the road. Consumers expect the latest information from around the world to be at their finger tips no matter where they are.

As the media scrambles to adapt to the demands of being online, there is a lingering concern, especially among journalists, that the news on the Internet may not live up the New York Times slogan “All the news that’s fit to print.”

The online news association's digital journalism credibility survey found that media workers are concerned about the standards, practices and credibility of digital news.Two-thirds of the media workers surveyed in the study said online news does not meet the same standards as traditional media.

As one participant at the Japan Society Media Dialogue held in August 2000 said, “The competition to say who has a story first becomes sometimes bizarre, as success is measured not by the quality of the story, but ‘did you beat your competitor by so many minutes, or sometimes even seconds?’”

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It's Not Just A New Media Problem

Tighter deadlines force some journalists to take dangerous shortcuts. Pressed to file quickly, journalists are relying more and more on sercahable databases, such as Nexis, in lieu of more traditional time-consuming techniques - making phone calls, sifting through public records and making on-the-scene visits.

The constant deadline of online news has left journalists wondering if it is possible be both fast and accurate. But is this really an issue for new media or is it a carry-over of old media issues that seem more prominent in Web news because it’s under the spotlights?

A study done by the American Society of Newspaper Editors found that more than a third of the public - 35 percent - see spelling or grammar mistakes in their newspaper more than once a week and 21 percent see them almost daily.

Constant deadlines might encourage inaccuracy Compared to the public, twice as many journalists - 70 percent - find spelling and grammar errors, typos, mislabelings and misidentifications in their paper more than once a week.

The study suggests that the public attributes inaccuracy largely to the rush to meet deadline. However, while almost half of the public believes that mistakes and errors occur because of deadline, 27 percent attribute them to sloppiness, laziness or lack of caring, and an additional 5 percent suggest that the journalists just don't know any better.

What does this mean for new media? It means that inaccuracy due to deadline pressure is not unique, and it pays to learn from the mistakes of old media. The American Society of Newspaper Editors points out that the presence of “even seemingly small errors feed public skepticism about a newspaper's credibility” and therefore it is important be accurate.

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The Web Sometimes Become a target

At the Conference on Excellence in Journalism and the New Media at UC Berkley, which was held April 23, 1998, Dale Peskin, the assistant managing editor of the Dallas Morning News, illustrated how the Web became the target of new media skeptics because of general error.

In January 1998, the Dallas Morning News published a story on its Internet site DallasNews.com for about two hours that Monica Lewinsky was seen in a compromising position with Bill Clinton by two people who were in a position to know that information. After the story appeared online it became the object of much debate. The sources then called back saying that was not what they meant, and recanted their statements.

“This occurs at about 10:00 p.m. Central Time at night, so when it went out on the Web site it immediately became news to lots of people. Indeed, the topic of Nightline that very night was the same story, and Ted Koppel began talking with people on his show about this story, as did Larry King,” Peskin said.

The story was written for both the online and print edition for the next day. But because the online version is available to the public instantly, it appeared that the rush to scoop everyone else made the online edition inaccurate.

“What was largely reported was that this was a story that was pushed into publication because of the Internet and thus we got it wrong. That wasn't the situation at all,” Peskin said. “The story was essentially typeset for the first edition of the newspaper and sent to our Web site at the same time and appeared in the first editions of the newspaper, and also went out on the Web site after meeting all the standards”

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The Web Might Have Less Deadline Pressure

The argument that the constant deadline of new media makes it more susceptible to mistakes and errors is valid.

But news editor for CNET Clair Whitmer, who also participated in the UC Berkley conference, says deadline pressures for new media might actually be more lax than it is for traditional media and therefore it is not a reason or excuse for sloppy work.

"Five minutes to deadline is five minutes to deadline, no matter where you're working," Whitmer said. "But if I'm an editor for a print publication and it's five minutes to deadline, I have five minutes to make the decision about whether or not to run a story. If I'm working online, I don't have to make that decision in five minutes. I can stay there for another two or three hours torturing the reporter until I'm satisfied with it, and I'll still have time to beat the morning papers."

In the end, journalism on the Web will establish itself. Some may fail, and some may succeed, but those that are accurate are more likely maintain the public’s trust and therefore are more likely to stick around.

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Online News Association's Credibility Survey

Japan Society Media Dialogue

American Society of Newspaper Editors

UC Berkley Conference