A tangled web
In a 1996 editorial section article with the headline "A Tangled Web," the Arizona Republic noted that "for all its potential for being an extraordinary, enriching opportunity for unlimited access and delivery of information, the Web is rife with pitfalls." Some might argue that this unlimited access is what makes it a breeding ground for information of dubious credibility.
Paul Glister, author of "Digital Literacy," points out that information seems more credible when viewed on a computer screen. After all, computers don't lie. This makes sense when you consider the Internet's early history as a project of academics, scientists and government bodies. And anyone with a bit of technical savvy can create slick presentations on Web pages.
The Arizona Republic article also points out that information can be disseminated fairly anonymously. And unlike print journalism, there are no standards, copy editors or fact checkers to ensure all the information uploaded to the Web is objective and accurate.
So credibility becomes an issue.
Seeing is believing?
A recent Pew Research Center survey shows the credibility of professional journalism has fallen sharpy in the past 10 years (Ketterer, 1998). A 1998 study by Jupiter Communications shows that 80 percent of online consumers trust online news as much as they trust newspapers, broadcast television and cable news outlets.
According to the Jupiter Communications study, an additional seven percent view online news as more reliable than other media, and nearly 70 percent don't question the editorial integrity of online news providers that also sell products online.
Jodi Cohen, in a 1996 Editor and Publisher article, calls credibility the "Achilles heel" of the Internet. This is a frightening prospect when taking into consideration a 1997 Media in Cyberspace study, conducted by Middleburg + Associates of New York. The study found that of 3,795 newspaper and magazine respondents, one third go online every day and 85 percent go online at least monthly. Only 13 percent reported they had no Internet access.
Spreading it around
In a Web press release, Amy Jackson, managing director of Middleburg Interactive, said, "Once misinformation or negative information starts circulating on the Internet, it gets out in print and broadcast and creates a huge media relations problem."
Consider the Drudge Report. Matt Drudge, the creator of the online news site some might call a rumor mill, claims that his site is "only 80 percent accurate." A journalist must be able to identify which 80 percent is accurate and which 20 percent is inaccurate.
As Gilster writes in a 1998 Raleigh News and Observer article, a story that springs up on the Web can be "propagated instantly and is picked up by other news organizations eager not to be left behind. A story not fully checked out is reported coast to coast by the major networks and takes on a life of its own."
This is what happened to the Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton scandal, parts of which were broken by the Drudge Report.
Take it with a grain of salt.
The best advice for journalists finding information online is to check it out elsewhere for confirmation. And until the credibility of the source and information can be estabished, take it with a grain of salt.
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