Mixed Media: Why the Web Makes for So Much Bum Reporting

Journalism isn't a science, but it's the setting for a grand experiment. The hypothesis: that you can dismantle the venerable institutions of journalism while preserving the accountability and integrity they represent. Well, that hypothesis hasn't been faring so well lately. In the past couple weeks, three online news organizations have illustrated different but related dangers of practicing high-impact journalism without the safeguards of a traditional newsroom.Over the weekend, the Business Insiderreported that New York Gov. David Paterson was hours away from resigning in response to a bombshell story that The New York Times was about to publish. But the story has yet to appear, and Paterson remains very much in office.

This week, an established investigative reporter for The Daily Beast, Gerald Posner, was suspended and then resigned after multiple instances in which he had plagiarized his reporting had come to light.

And reporters from the Associated Press and Gawker revealed that a blogger for the Huffington Post, Luis Carlos Montalvan, had falsified elements of his biography. Montalvan is an Iraq War veteran whose story about fighting through post-traumatic stress disorder constitutes the backbone of his reporting and advocacy.

An Age-Old Transgression

Of course, there's nothing new whatsoever about writers lying, plagiarizing, or placing too much trust in the word of a shaky source. Jayson Blair worked for a respected old-media outlet (The New York Times). So did Janet Cooke (The Washington Post). So did Stephen Glass (The New Republic).

But there does seem to be something about the conditions under which more and more online journalism is practiced that makes instances like these ever more likely. The Business Insider employs a small number of full-time reporters and bloggers who churn out vast amounts of copy every day. The Daily Beast pays stringers, many of them with top-notch pedigrees, far less than the $2 a word they likely once received for the same types of stories, which forces them to rack up ever more bylines to pay the bills. (Posner, a staffer, says it was the "compressed deadlines" of the Beast that led to his accidental lifting of passages from other stories.) HuffPo pays nothing at all to most of its contributors, just publicity -- the currency fabulists crave most.

Too Much Pressure?

But that's not all. There's also the pressure to make the kind of big splash that will help a new site break out from the clutter of the chaotic marketplace for digital news. A single huge story can vault a new site into instant legitimacy -- think about how TMZ became a household name overnight after it broke the news of Mel Gibson's anti-Jewish tirade. The Times and CNN don't have to worry about garnering name recognition. They've already made their reputations. Their priority is to protect them, which they do through accuracy, fact-checking, and general caution.

I'm not knocking the new-media press here. I'm part of it. I've often been a practitioner of iterative journalism -- i.e., putting an undercooked story online and then adding to it as new information becomes available -- and I've on occasion fallen flat on my face in my haste to get a scoop.

But as newspapers and other bastions of old-school reporting downsize or disappear and are replaced by understaffed websites or underpaid bloggers, these sorts of incidents are only going to get more common. We, as news consumers, are either going to have to increase our tolerance for them or our willingness to pay up for the sort of well-sourced, credible journalism we're used to.
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