In November 1996, Pierre Salinger, former ABC News correspondent and White House press secretary to President John F. Kennedy, inspired a brief flurry of headlines when he stepped forward with what he claimed was SIDEBAR
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dramatic news: He’d found documents proving that U.S. Navy missiles had shot down TWA Flight 800, which had crashed in the Atlantic Ocean earlier that year.

The FBI looked at Salinger’s papers and identified them as identical to discredited documents that had been floating around the Internet’s Usenet newsgroups for months. 

Whoops! Salinger’s snookering illustrated a common failing among journalists at that early point in the Internet’s rise—a sort of online credulity syndrome. Somehow, he’d concluded that if information was published online and seemed real, it must be trustworthy. Once Salinger placed his imprimatur on the story, his credentials as a media insider ushered it past the usual checkpoints. It wound up all over cable news and front pages.

This sequence of events was plainly a failure of the journalistic process. But its coverage as news reframed it as a failure of the Internet. The problem, observers like Matthew Wald of The New York Times declared, was that the Web just can’t be trusted: “It used to be called gossip. Now it takes the form of e-mail or Internet postings, and it has a new credibility.”

As I read this coverage, I fumed. I’d already been online for half a decade, and I’d left my newspaper job a year before to help start Salon.com, a professional news magazine on the Web. I knew that the Internet sped up the diffusion of rumors—and that it also accelerated their debunking. Surely it behooved newsroom pros to grasp the dynamics of this unfamiliar but fascinating process. The flow of information was changing fast in front of us, and reporters, of all people, needed to become experts in navigating that flow.

Journalists should have been leaders in teaching others how to gauge the trustworthiness of information in this exciting but anarchic new environment. Instead, they were making awful public mistakes themselves, such as this one, and then scapegoating the Internet.

Breakdown of Trust

This Salinger flap set me on a trajectory, for the next several years, of chronicling the triangular breakdown of trust I saw unfolding among the media, the Web, and the general public. Journalists thought they could defend the reputation of their newspapers and broadcast outlets by trying to discredit the upstart online world. Internet natives and recent immigrants to it lost respect for many mainstream journalists, concluding that they were clueless about the emerging online medium. Members of the public, instead of enjoying a smooth transition guided by the journalists they knew and trusted, found themselves asked to take sides in an intramedia feud.

In this melee, everyone lost. Today’s newsrooms are full of journalists with considerably more Web experience and online savvy than their predecessors, but the “blame the Web” reflex is now deeply embedded in the media-professional psyche, emerging on cue each time some hapless journalist makes a Salingeresque mistake.

Fortunately, we now have a wide range of reasonably sophisticated tools and approaches for rating the quality of information on the Web. Here are a few examples:

  • Reliable online coverage documents its assertions with links to primary sources; the absence of such links is a red flag.
  • Good bloggers lay out their backgrounds and biases in a stream of posts over the years, allowing readers to decide where they can be trusted and where they lose their bearings.
  • Every page on Wikipedia—the collectively assembled and edited online encyclopedia—has a “discussion” tab where users can see who has challenged what and a “history” tab that shows every change to the page’s information.

The comments area found below most Web articles and posts provides a natural space for give-and-take about possible errors, omissions and problems with the coverage—and how a site handles such issues is another way to decide whom to trust.

Anonymous sources remain as suspect online as they are in any other medium, but new opportunities to examine who links to any site and what they say about it often yield insights, even about sites that don’t tell us their authors’ names. 

These customs and practices for assessing the trustworthiness of information online have evolved in the years since Salinger’s gaffe. Throughout that time, journalists have also often found themselves in a defensive crouch, unwilling or unable to embrace the Web’s new techniques. Large media companies spent years discouraging outbound links from their Web sites, citing business reasons, and they still lag behind. Newsroom traditions of impersonality and aspirations to objectivity mean that most newspaper bylines remain opaque in comparison with the full profiles we have for our favorite bloggers. Newsroom culture remains committed to delivering a finished product to readers, so the Wikipedia-style “discussion” and “history” pages aren’t an option. And the comments feature on most newspaper sites serves as an outlet for readers to vent frustration, rather than an arena for collaboration between readers and journalists.

All this has left editors and reporters employed by traditional news organizations scratching their heads, wondering how it is that their time-honored approaches have continued to lose trust and readers, while new-media upstarts multiply and thrive. 

Earlier this year, a 22-year-old Dublin student inserted a bogus quote into the Wikipedia entry for composer Maurice Jarre, who had just passed away. Wikipedia’s moderators did a pretty good job of removing the unsourced quotation, but not before it had been picked up by a depressingly high number of news outlets for use in their Jarre obituaries.

Surely, in 2009, working journalists must understand how to use Wikipedia. It was easy to discover that this quotation had been added to the Jarre page SIDEBAR
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after the composer’s passing; one click on the page’s “history” tab brought up all the information you’d need. Apparently, not a single obit writer of the many who used the quotation bothered to make that simple inquiry.

The quotes would most likely have stood, uncorrected, had the student prankster not notified the publications of their error himself. That’s depressing enough in itself. It’s even sadder when we realize that, 13 years since Salinger’s mistake, there are still so many journalists who know less than their readers do about how to read critically online.

Scott Rosenberg is the author of “Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters,” published by Crown this summer. He was awarded a Knight News Challenge grant for his project, MediaBugs.

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