Web reporting turns a wisecrack into a firestorm

Public Editor

May 20, 2007|By Paul Moore | Paul Moore,Public Editor

Significantly more readers are now visiting The Sun's Web site due to a flood of morning news and photo postings from The Sun's newsroom, plus an array of blog postings on topics from sports and dining out to the environment and education. By committing more newsroom resources to online reporting and editing, The Sun is seeking to build its audience - and is seeking new sources of revenue in the highly competitive media market.

In that regard, the rise in The Sun's Web site traffic is very good news.

But a recent fast-moving news story reminded journalists of the powerful implications and potential pitfalls of this new world of online journalism. It also showed that the topics that drive Internet traffic can be very different from what is traditionally considered important news.

It went like this: A Baltimore City Public Works spokesman called the newsroom to report that an Interstate 83 billboard promoting talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh had been splattered with paint. While speaking with a Sun reporter - on the record - he said: "It looks great. It did my heart good." A short news story about the billboard - which included the spokesman's quip - was posted on the Web site before 9 a.m. on May 10.

Internet browsers quickly discovered the news report and links to it were posted on national political Web sites. Limbaugh himself noted the billboard vandalism on his radio show and within hours thousands of visits had been made to The Sun's online report, updated throughout the day to note the strong public reaction. About 500,000 Internet users eventually read The Sun's story.

In the next day's print edition, The Sun published an above-the-fold Page One article, "A little quip, a big uproar," which reported on the tempest raised by the relatively modest Web site story. Over a two-day period, hundreds of readers e-mailed the newspaper either to decry perceived efforts to stifle Limbaugh's freedom of speech or to demand that the city employee be fired. Baltimore City officials disavowed the employee's comment and said he had "deeply apologized."

What concerned journalists most in the aftermath was the potential impact on the city employee's life and career. Assistant city editor Peter Hermann, who also directs The Sun's morning Internet reporting team and who approved the Limbaugh story, said: "We published an Internet story that may have ruined a man's career - not over public corruption or malfeasance, but over a stupid statement by a spokesman when he wasn't thinking."

Hermann correctly points out that in the pre-Internet era there would have been extended discussion between the reporter and editors about the implications of the spokesman's comments. The reporter might have called the spokesman back to note that his off-the-cuff comments could be interpreted as the view of the department he represents. But this did not happen.

"The legitimate need to get things on the Internet quickly opens some new ethical frontiers," Hermann said later. "We must learn to deal with questions like this as the discussions and checks that are part of the print-edition process occur less frequently."

In my view, The Sun's decision to use the city employee's comment was appropriate. He is an experienced spokesman whose job is to inform the public about issues in the department he represents. Even though the city is not directly responsible for the privately owned billboard, he was sophisticated enough to understand that his comments could be taken as the position of the city.

The problem, in my view, is one of proportion and newsworthiness. The firestorm that the Web site story generated was way beyond the story's news value. If the original story had been published only in the print edition, it would have been placed inside the Maryland section where it belonged.

Traditionally, editors decide what news is most important and what belongs on the front page. On the Web, however, the volume of reader traffic for an individual story - often driven by individuals and groups with strong agendas - can influence news decisions. This was likely the case in this instance.

Limbaugh remains one of the most powerful voices in radio, with millions of listeners every day. When he mentioned the specifics of The Sun's billboard story on his May 10 program, it was the ultimate Internet link. For many of Limbaugh's Internet-savvy listeners, the chance to read the story and respond was irresistible.

Web site expert Jayu Adelson recently discussed the shaping of Internet traffic by agenda-driven groups or individuals in an interview with The Wall Street Journal: "It's paramount for sites that are publicly driven to think about this every day, this arms race against the manipulators."

The Sun and other newspapers need to deal with this issue as they attempt to build Web traffic and advertising revenue to help support their news reporting. But that is a column for another day.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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