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How the Internet can Benefit Journalism

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Message Patrick Mattimore
I recently read a portion of a newspaper op-ed written by Dan K. Thomasson and distributed by Scripps Howard News Service. It was in the English language newspaper, Korea Times, which I picked up when I was in Seoul.

I was pretty sure I was only reading a portion of the opinion, "Modern journalism challenges are daunting," because when I got to the end of the opinion, Thomasson seemed to be in the middle of trying to make his point.

I have been writing and submitting commentaries to a variety of publications for the last seven years so I'm familiar with editors cutting parts of my work because of space considerations. Usually, that's not a problem, but occasionally, as with Thomasson's opinion, the editor cuts the heart or sense out of the article.

Mark Twain had a description for editors of that ilk suggesting that they separated the wheat from the chaff and published the chaff.

Thomasson's opinion was good enough that I wanted to read all of the commentary. When I accessed the Internet, I went to an alternative source and found that the last two paragraphs (65 words) had indeed been cut from the newspaper version that I had read.

Thomasson's point was that a general trust, which formerly existed between journalists and sources, was evaporating, and likely would soon be gone forever.

While Thomasson may be right, trust between journalists and sources is less important than two other "trusts" which are disappearing and which really make for daunting journalistic challenges.

The first trust is between a journalist and her editor and it's a two-way street. Just as Thomasson and other journalists have to trust that whatever editorial changes are made to their work does not alter the message, so too editors depend upon journalists to give them accurate pieces.

Modern journalism is largely an impersonal business. In most instances, there is little or no dialogue between writer and editor. The writer submits a piece and the editor makes a decision to publish it or not and, if the editor decides to publish, he makes whatever changes he sees fit. An editor rarely has time to check a writer's facts.

The second trust is between the media and the public and that is by far the more important trust.

The most common reason people cite as to why they distrust the media is because they believe that news sources are slanted or biased. Certainly, when a blogger like Andrew Breitbart produces misleading video footage incriminating a public figure, as happened in the recent case of U.S. Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod, the public has ample reason to cry foul and accuse the media of bias.

However, that type of bias comes to light pretty fast.

A more significant media shortcoming is work that loses its original flavor or gains an unintended tone. When stories and opinions are poorly edited or unedited in order to satisfy time or space constraints, mistakes are made and, unlike Sherrod type mistakes, are likely to go undiscovered or uncriticized.

A reporter uses his judgment about which quotes to include in a story, for example. The editor adds her judgment to the mix. Ultimately, what is published may or may not fairly represent the real story or the opinions of the sources.

Poorly reported news is a more serious problem than media slant because slant is apparent to most readers. Misleading headlines and news stories or opinions that edit or neglect significant details misinform readers. Those mistakes don't have a telegraphed punch of bias which is why they leave us more susceptible to being ill-informed.

Fortunately, the much maligned Internet, which has been blamed for fast and sometimes inaccurate news, can also contribute to improving the media. I was able to find the real sense of what Thomasson was saying by doing a little Internet research.

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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.
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