Searching for Journalism Credibility in this Dotcom World

Paul Martin Lester (E-mail and home page), California State University, Fullerton

Searching for Journalism Credibility in this Dotcom World Here's a news flash (and a lede that jumps right out at you): the World Wide Web is a valuable resource for information.

A simple and unarguable concept, right? Wrong.

Because in a world when anyone can say they are a journalist and publish a World Wide Web newspaper, 'zine, radio, or television site, finding credible sources of information is harder than it once was before "dotcom" was allowed as a valid word in Scrabble games.

And we are the information professionals. We're supposed to know the difference between a homepage that broke the Monica Lewinsky story (courtesy of and a newspaper site that reported what the homepage contained. To the uninitiated and digitally confused, the World Wide Web with its millions of users and databases around the globe must seem like an enormously confusing array of facts, figures, and graphic elements in which all stops along the way have equal weight and validity. And it is that attitude that makes informational professionals and their corporate bosses extremely nervous.

But the Web has been in existence long enough now (I remember that I laughed the first time I saw a Web address on an advertisement billboard or as a clue in a crossword puzzle. I've quit laughing.) for critical analysis of professional practices.

For example, the first assignment I give my World Wide Web design and production students (take a look at the course's syllabus here) is what I call a Web scavenger hunt. Students are asked to find the answers as quickly as possible to ten questions. These questions range from the vital (What is a price for a one-way ticket and the airline(s) needed from John Wayne (Orange County) airport to Missoula, Montana leaving the day the assignment is due?) to the trivial (How many lanes wide is the swimming pool at Smith College?). The assignment is designed to help students understand the range of information available on the Web. The exercise is also a test of their thinking skills regarding keyword searches and their power to evaluate the information one finds on this marvelous medium. It is the latter pedagogical goal that is directly related to the issue at hand.

For example, if you want to find the number of Winston Cup points that Rusty Wallace possesses for a particular racing season, are you more likely to find the correct answer at the NASCAR website (NASCAR) or the "Number2girl's Rusty Wallace Fan Site" (Number2Girl)? (Incidentally, I also have one question out of the ten that my students cannot find using the Web to teach them that the Web is not the be-all-end-all: Does a local restaurant carry my favorite Chardonnay from Long Vineyard out of St. Helena, California? The clever students figure out that they must call the restaurant to find out that it doesn't offer the wine).

The next assignment for the Web course helps students understand more thoroughly the importance of evaluating websites for their accuracy. They must research fact and opinion concerning the past, present, and future uses of the Web and then evaluate the websites where they obtained that information. One of the best resources for this task comes from the Wolfgram Memorial Library, Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania. See the website here.

On their website, the two offer evaluation checklists for five types of websites: advocacy, business/marketing, news, informational, and personal with examples for each category. For news websites, there are five criteria:

1. Authority (Who is responsible for creating the information?),
2. Accuracy (Can sources of information be easily checked?),
3. Objectivity (Is news, advertising, and opinion clearly separated?),
4. Currency (Is it clear how often the files are updated?), and
5. Coverage (Does it seem as if the subject is adequately discussed?).

I also caution my students to look at technical (Does the file download quickly?), graphic (Are the typographical and visual message choices appropriate?), and content-related (Does the site contain useful information without spelling or typographical errors?) issues in their evaluations. Incidentally, websites that meet the evaluation standards of the researchers are (USA Today), the (Philadelphia Inquirer), and (CNN).

All this is to make the point that the techniques and strategies used to evaluate the credibility of websites are the same you would use to evaluate choices from other media. Would you trust facts and figures from a printed source that was stuck under a windshield wiper blade of your car and contained questionable claims and spelling errors? With such an obvious example you have to wonder what all the fuss is about. Is online journalism really any different from a printed or broadcast version? Do online news sites somehow pose an extra threat to journalism's credibility?

Bad reporting, biased conclusions, and sensational displays find their way on so-called news websites just as in the (gasp!) printed and broadcast worlds. But admittedly, there is concern that a naive user will judge an established and credible news website with the same factual casualness as a homepage created by my mother. But so what? That kind of sloppy consumerism has always been a part of the mass media (and is also why hot dogs and Krispy Creme donuts are sometimes preferred over a filet mignon and a creme brulee). However, there are some steps you can take that increase the chances that your searching and reporting will be deemed credible by those who care about such matters. Here are some suggestions:

1. Ask for a computer on your desk that can access the Web. Get Web access at home (see if DSL or cable modem access is available for faster connections). Get accustomed to using the Web everyday-and not just for work-related information.

2. Start using the Web for fact gathering and checking information (two excellent sources for beat information are from the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida compiled by researcher David Shedden here and from the Foundation for American Communications out of Pasadena, California here).

3. Sign up for free memberships with a listserv (AMEND1-L, CARR-L, COMLAW-L, INTCAR-L, IRE-L, JOURNET, -LNEWSLIB, NICAR-L, NPPA-L, RTVJ-L, and SPJ-L are excellent choices, but pick one or two, provided you don't have a life and you really want a ton of E-mail) and pose ethical questions related to journalism and the new media generally.

4. Learn how to create your own Web homepage so that you can compile specialized beat sources of information when you need them in a hurry. Dream Weaver, FrontPage, or PageMill are simple to use Web file editors. There are also many books available to teach yourself how to create your own files.

5. Become practiced in evaluating websites for their content and credibility. Don't be hesitant to look at some much criticized websites such as the (Drudge Report), (, and any advocacy group with a biased viewpoint. Check the sites using the criteria discussed above.

6. Get involved with the folks who run and produce the website at your shop. At least observe their operation with a goal of making the site more than a computer version of printed or broadcast fare.

7. Remember that there are many other sources of information other than the Web--Don't forget the power of a personal visit or phone conversation. Confirm sources for news just like you would with any story you worked on while in journalism school.

8. Talk to your friends, family members, readers, viewers, and users about the growing need for a skeptical eye with regards to mass media in general.

Finally, to come to any type of conclusion about the ethical response to credibility problems with this new medium, we need to put the history of the mass media into perspective:

* Cave drawings were first made about 30,000 years ago,
* The first recorded writing was in Sumeria about 5,500 years ago,
* Gutenberg's printing press was invented about 500 years ago,
* Louis Daguerre's, Henry Fox Talbot's, and my personal hero, Hipolyte Bayard's photographic inventions were introduced about 160 years ago,
* Motion pictures were introduced about 105 years ago,
* Television was introduced about 60 years ago,
* The desktop computer was introduced about 16 years ago, and
* The World Wide Web was introduced about six years ago.

Now if a generation is about 20 years, from cave drawings to writing is 1,275 generations, from writing to the printing press is 250, from the printing press to photography is 19, from photography to motion pictures is three, from motion pictures to television is two, from television to desktop computing is two, and from desktop computing to the World Wide Web is less than 1/2 of one generation. We simply have not had enough time to fully discover and evaluate the ethical, social, political, economic, and professional impact of any previous technology, much less the World Wide Web. But that shouldn't stop us all from trying.