Mathew Ingram offers a reality check on the state of journalism, citing a recent Digiday interview with Jack Shafer in which the media critic says, “news coverage has probably never been more accurate than it is today.” Ingram cites the ability of crowdsourced fact-checking projects as well as social networks to quickly spot inconsistencies that lead to embarrassments like Rolling Stone‘s recent University of Virginia rape story. Facts are now available with a quick search. So is misinformation, but through triangulation a journalist can usually arrive at the truth quickly enough.
What’s less discussed in the debates about online journalism is the contribution Google has made to unlocking expertise on a mass scale. In the pre-Internet days source development was difficult, often involving searches through clips in the morgue and calling around looking for somebody who knew somebody, and then hoping the person could be reached on the phone. Reporters often fell back to the same inner circle of sources who could be relied upon to return their calls. The result was insider news – small groups of people talking among themselves.
Today, the top Google result for “computer security expert” or “airline industry analyst” turns up names in seconds. And there are many more ways to contact them now, too.
This is one of Google’s under-appreciated gifts to journalism. When Messrs. Page and Brin conceived of the search engine, they made the decision that the principal driver of search results would be quality of content as measured by links from other high-quality sources. The algorithm has evolved considerably since that time, but the goal hasn’t, and all search engines today have fallen into line behind it.
You can’t buy the kind of authority that search engines bestow. Google decided that brand, circulation, marketing budget, employee count, volume of output and other size-related factors matter less than what you say. That’s why a dedicated blogger can – on a good day and with the right search terms – outperform The New York Times.
The journalist’s biggest handicap today isn’t information but time. In the caffeine-soaked frenzy that online news has become, fact-checking is a luxury that is sometimes easiest left to the crowd on the assumption that small mistakes can be easily fixed without anybody knowing. We’re not saying that’s bad or good. But when “every single reader is a fact-checker who can easily broadcast information,” as Alexis Sobel Fitts notes in Columbia Journalism Review, the stakes get high, particularly for the most trusted media outlets.
Which raises the question: Are media mistakes more common today or are they just more commonly exposed? What’s more amazing to us than the Rolling Stone example, which was an error in human judgment, is the embarrassment New York magazine suffered over its profile of a teenager from Queens who claimed to have made $72 million playing the stock market. Whatever fact-checking the editors may have done, why did nobody think to simply plug some numbers into a spreadsheet? Money did, and it quickly showed why the young man’s claims were too preposterous to be believed.
This is one reason the debate over journalism quality is to complex. There’s no question that journalists have more and better information available than ever. There’s also no question that they have less time to check facts and more pressure to publish sensational stories that generate clicks and shares. Journalism isn’t broken, but the business model that enables good journalism to thrive is still undiscovered.