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Answer to Quora Question on Online Journalism

Should we expect better standards from Internet News Sites that are the offshoot official mainstream news sources?

Terry Irving, Online since 1980, developed some of the basic techniques in online news, blatantly claims to have written the first ‘newsblog.’ Edit Bio

First, please tell me when the “old school of ‘just the facts, ma’am’ journalism” existed?During the period of the American Revolution when all print outlets were owned and operated by political parties or factions?

During the Hearst / Pulitzer period when newspapers created stories, ignored well-known facts about celebrities (like the fact that FDR couldn’t walk), and generally would print anything that would bring in sales?

During World War 2 when government censorship in US media was complete and the psychological censorship by editors and writers in support of the war effort allowed journalists to ignore the terrible losses at Tarawa, the bombing of Allied troops in Normandy, and the fact that the majority of US soldiers in Europe were badly-led children because of the loss of a trained cadre in Africa? (The sainted Edward R. Murrow later headed the American Government’s Propaganda operations–they only invented ‘public diplomacy’ after he died. He was always very honest about what he produced after the War)

During the 50s, when Hollywood crumbled under government pressure and blacklisted some of our best writers and journalists published the latest communist witchhunts without question?

During the 60’s when the support for the Vietnam War was a united front until the very end?

The Golden Age of Journalism (as far as I’m concerned) was when, by happy circumstance, the television and radio outlets and the major newspapers were owned by very rich families who enjoyed talking about their prize journalists at parties and protected them from the realities of life. I’m talking about the NY Times, the Washington Post, the Wall ST. Journal, and the three networks under their oligarchic ownership. All of this ended as soon as a news organization was under the control of a corporation.

OK. I’m overdoing it but the question is a great example of Golden Age thinking–there must have been a time just a couple of decades ago when it was all so much better. Yeah, it comes from the fact that your memory of what the world used to be is that of a child . Crime is down, children are safer, poverty and abuse are at the lowest levels in history  but that can’t complete with your memories of life when the world was new and your parents didn’t bother to tell you about all the problems.

Back to Journalists. There are exceptions (Ben Bradlee, Sy Hirsh, John Hersey) but the great span of journalism of any kind is about the same–a large number of hacks who put out stories that present very complicated issues as simple facts, another large number of pseudo-journalists who use facts as building-blocks to prove a pre-determined ideology, and finally, a very small group of real investigators who are generally poorly-paid and usually fired as soon as someone complains about anything they write or say.

OK, all of this is mere preamble to answering the question. Will online news sources in general be better? Probably not. There is a positive component to “crowd-sourcing” and the fact that anyone can put up a webpage and report. The downside can be seen in Reddit’s total fail in the Boston Bombing or in webites like Daily KOS or Breitbart where facts take a backseat to ideology.

The advantage that websites have over independent operations is ‘curating.’ Oddly enough, a journalist’s job is NOT to just give the facts. That’s done by 300 page government reports or expensive data-collection firms. A journalist takes a fact and decides
a) is it true? ,
b) who is presenting it and what’s their angle?,
c) how can he or she create a complete picture of the fact in the time or space available?
d) how important is that fact?

That’s what you want from a journalist and, although you never see it, it’s enforced by a group of dedicated people who work as editors, fact-checkers, editorial boards, standards and practices attorneys, etc. The raw material of the day’s events are first filtered through the experience of a reporter then usually filtered two or three more times before it gets on the website. (If they are good, this happens in minutes). These are usually people who care fiercely about the news, who resist corporate intrusion, who are difficult to identify as Liberal or Conservative, who are inevitably identified as Liberal or Conservative by Conservatives and Liberals, respectively.

However, they need to be paid. If they are going to keep doing this work, raise their kids and all that stuff, they must be paid. Posting on the internet is free but it would be nice to eat as well.  The end result is that a news website that is connected to a major news organization will be able to pay reasonable (but not great) salaries to the curators who keep them reasonably accurate. An independent website will not.

So, yes, you should expect better standards from large, corporate news websites. And, in fact that’s what you get.

You know how you can tell? They tell you about their mistakes. When was the last time you saw a retraction or an apology from a small feisty independent site?

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