'Instant journalism' puts accuracy at risk Media convention ponders technology and news gathering

August 05, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

If we have learned nothing else in this summer of Monica Lewinsky headlines, CNN retractions and the rise of "citizen-reporters" on the Internet, it is that journalism is undergoing tremendous change.

Cable television and computer technology have obliterated traditional news cycles and leave many wondering whether accuracy -- the first rule of journalism -- is about to be lost in cyberspace.

In cities nationwide, daily newspapers continue to close, eliminating the competition that inspires vigorous coverage of the news. With only one newspaper in town, some owners -- preoccupied with the bottom line -- can more easily reduce their commitment to excellence in journalism in order to bolster their profit margins.

Given that environment, editors and educators say, it's important that journalists put their new tools to good use. "We have technological advances that are enormously accelerating the speed of communication and the volume of information available to human beings," said Eugene Patterson, former editor of the St. Petersburg Times. "But what that means is that it's going to be all the more demanding on journalists that we increase our capacity to reach the isles of meaning in this sea of words."

This rapidly changing news media landscape is very much on the minds of the 2,000 members of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication who are in Baltimore today for the opening of their annual convention, said Steve Lacy, president of the group.

During the next four days at the Sheraton Inner Harbor and Hyatt Regency Hotels, hundreds of papers will be read and panels convened. The convention's major round-table discussion tomorrow is titled "Communication in the Public Interest. Which Publics? Whose Interests?" News media commentator Hodding Carter III will explore the meanings of "public" in his keynote address today.

If there is one point of consensus among the two dozen educators and editors contacted for this article it is that journalists will not disappear. But, depending upon how you define the term and to which futurist scenario you subscribe, their role could be greatly changed.

The driving force behind much of the change is "convergence" -- computer technology and the Internet converging with television, radio and print in ways that can make for new forms of communication.

In some ways, one mutation of the reporter's role is already starting to look more like online gossip Matt Drudge than investigative reporter and editor Bob Woodward. One of the ways that Drudge -- who says his Web site gets 8 million "hits" a month and who appears weekly on the Fox News Channel -- defines himself as a "citizen-reporter" is in not having gone to journalism school or, as he puts it, "not having the credentials." Nor does anyone edit what Drudge includes in "The Drudge Report." He instantly publishes anything he wants by putting it on his Web site.

'It's not just Drudge'

"I think this is a tremendous problem, and it's not just Drudge," said Jack Nelson, the Los Angeles Times' chief Washington correspondent. "There are others on the Internet, too. And they put this information out there, and a lot of it is bad information. But you can't ignore it. And sometimes, because of competitive pressures and other factors, it gets picked up by the mainstream media. The problem is that there are no editors, no filters on this information. And the situation is getting worse."

Stu Wilk, managing editor of the Dallas Morning News, said: "Print journalists, who have always had the luxury of time -- at least compared to our brothers and sisters in television -- are already experiencing the thrills and spills of instant journalism, because with Web sites we have the same immediacy that TV has.

"I think that's going to intensify as the Internet and newspapers and cable TV outlets -- a la Chicago-land [the Chicago Tribune's 24-hour cable news channel] -- become more common. I think also that the distinction between a print journalist and a broadcast journalist is eventually going to disappear."

Wilk said his newspaper and its owner's television stations in the Southwest will team to launch a 24-hour cable channel, TXCN, in January.

"That's convergence," said Douglas Gomery, who writes "The Economics of Television" column for American Journalism Review. "The print reporters for the paper will also be working for the cable channel and the Web site, packaging and repackaging the same information."

Broader education

The larger journalism schools are already responding to the new media reality.

"Students at Maryland are now learning to do more than one medium -- they have to," said Reese Cleghorn, dean of the University of Maryland's College of Journalism. "You can still have a clear pathway in print journalism for newspapers and magazines, for example, but now you have to learn to work online, too."

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