Can we get accurate news, info from social media Web sites? No: Citizen journalists are untrained

March 24, 2012 

20071127 Digital times

300 dpi Gabi Campanario color illustration of handheld device with digital newspaper front on screen. The Seattle Times 2007

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CAMPANARIO — MCT

My love affair with newspapers began when I was very young and has continued throughout my life.

I still thrill to such names as the Ticonderoga Sentinel, which I discovered while driving through the Green Mountains of Vermont; the Bloomington Pantagraph in Illinois, where columnist David Broder began his career; and the Wapakoneta Daily News, the Ohio hometown newspaper of astronaut Neil Armstrong.

Newspapers such as these do far more than tell you the news. They record our country's history. They reflect the culture and standards and concerns of our communities. They record the activities of our schools, our churches, councils and Kiwanis, and the births, weddings and deaths that define the passage of generations. They carry ads for everything you could possibly need, from hardware stores to real estate agents and plumbers to cleaning services. Readers relate to their local papers in ways they will never relate to the Internet.

Experts say that traditional media simply cannot compete with the fast-evolving digital offerings of the Web.

In certain respects, this is true. It is the reason that many papers, sadly, have been forced out of business. But the reverse is also true: the Internet is unlikely ever to be able to compete with the public service provided by local papers and their reporters and editors, who love their communities and know every inch of their territory.

As local paper reporters gravitate to larger papers, wire services or broadcasting, they bring the accuracy, fairness and accountability learned at the local level.

All our great journalists, from Zenger to Reston and Murrow to Cronkite, learned their trade and achieved their greatest triumphs in what we now call the traditional media. They have served us well. Their passion for facts rather than ideology has strengthened the foundations of our democracy.

By contrast, the Internet today increasingly resembles a Tower of Babel, with millions of self-appointed, untrained citizen journalists writing whatever they feel like writing with few editorial checkpoints.

Often they are simply purveying their prejudices or ideologies dressed up as news. Many seem to specialize in triggering unnecessary health scares, with concerned young mothers as their preferred target. But as every reader of the Internet knows, once misleading information is posted, there is no easy way of correcting it. The errors remain. This is even true of Wikipedia, which tries harder than most to be accurate.

Newspapers have their faults, including their own biases, but overall they remain the most trustworthy sources of information for the general public. It is a matter of honor for the professional journalists who produce them.

But unlike regular newspapers, there are now thousands of "newspapers" on the Internet, ranging from digital editions of The New York Times to look-alikes started almost every week by college students having fun or, more insidiously, by foreign operatives intent on spreading misinformation to deliberately confuse or mislead the American public.

Whereas readers usually know the location of their local newspaper office and can talk with the editors, the location of some of the Internet versions is often shrouded in secrecy. A newspaper or news service with an American-sounding name may be based in China or North Korea. You cannot know for sure.

When scanning the Internet for news or other information, therefore, caution is not only desirable but vitally necessary.

The most serious indictment of today's "new" or "social media" is the continued absence of any rigorous correcting mechanism. Errors can remain forever uncorrected. This is not only dangerous, but presents an especially serious challenge to the millions of young Americans who have come to rely on the Internet as their primary source of information.

Adams, a former reporter for London's Daily Telegraph, is a Washington consultant and author of "In the Trenches: Adventures in Journalism and Public Affairs."

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