Do newspapers have different standards for their print and online versions? The New York Times’s Public Editor has a discussion in this week’s column of a story that ran on the Times’s Internet site but not in the print edition. The basic issue, without summarizing the details, is that a Times web reporter, in trying to add a different perspective on a jazz musician who had just died, wrote a piece that might not have passed muster in the print edition. The piece was factually correct but painted an apparently less than complete picture of the subject and raised some other issues as well.
In the near future anyway, we may see more rather than fewer examples of this kind of incident. The Internet has a different culture than print news. By its very nature, because of technology among other things, the Internet has a greater sense of immediacy with a premium placed on getting it on the web now, rather than later. Newspapers obviously are also interested in scoops and getting a story first, or at least keeping pace with the opposition, but with the Internet all of that is accentuated because the technology has eliminated virtually all barriers to access and time constraints. Anyone can get information or opinion or misinformation or disinformation on immediately. Newspapers, in contrast, have a number of checkpoints that have to be passed to publish something. Obviously, errors do get printed in newspapers, but despite what some people think, that’s almost always unintentional.
For better or worse, on the Internet nothing and no one stands between writer and reader; the reader has no way of knowing what standards the writer holds himself to in presenting whatever it is, how careful and thorough he or she is in gathering information or what the writer’s agenda may be.
It took a long time for newspapers to develop the prevailing ethics and standards of the profession, and it isn’t at all clear that as we make the transition from print to web that the new practitioners of journalism will adopt the same code—or any code. It would be comforting to know that they will abide by the same or even superior rules, but that isn’t a given.
So, when it comes to the Internet, caveat emptor.