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News Breaks on the Web, But Can You Believe It?

By Dirk SmillieSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 1, 1997



NEW YORK

When the Pulitzer Prize board meets this November in New York, its members will consider one of the most controversial proposals ever put before them: whether to establish a prize category for Web-based journalists.

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It's an idea already embraced by jurors of the National Magazine Awards, offered annually by the American Society of Magazine Editors. Next year's ceremony will for the first time honor online magazine writers with a prize of their own.

Yet such newfound attention to cyberjournalists is tempered by concerns that stories broken on the Internet - where conspiracy buffs and assassination theorists can broadcast their ideas - are increasingly obtained by Web writers employing questionable sources and methods. "Online journalists are getting more attention but less respect," says Michael Kinsley, editor of the online magazine Slate.

No one fits that description better than Matt Drudge, author of an online tip sheet called the Drudge Report. Mr. Drudge is credited with being the first to report on Bob Dole's choice of Jack Kemp as his running mate in last year's presidential race, and with scooping the networks on the new, multimillion-dollar contracts for the cast of NBC's "Seinfeld."

Last July, when America Online began carrying the Drudge Report, an AOL press release touted Drudge as the "Walter Winchell of the electronic age," who would make other journalists play catch-up on stories unobtainable elsewhere.

And AOL was right: A few weeks later Drudge broke a story asserting that Sidney Blumenthal, a newly hired senior aide to President Clinton, had a history of spousal abuse. The accusation was picked up by other media outlets, including The Washington Post and New York Post.

The only problem with the story, Drudge discovered, was that it was false. He promptly issued a retraction, admitting he had "been had" by political sources he said were trying to use him. But Mr. Blumenthal was not satisfied, filing a $30 million libel suit last month against Drudge and America Online.

Above the speed limit

Rumor, gossip, and news on the Web move at muzzle velocity, speeding through an information culture with little time for journalistic methodologies. But without fact-checking or corroboration of sources, critics say, news on the Net is the equivalent of a passenger traveling 90 miles an hour without a seat belt.

"Speed is the enemy of accuracy," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "The reason newspapers tend to be more accurate than electronic media is that newspapers have a news cycle of about 12 hours, where a group of editors can paw over stories and second-guess them."

Likewise, says Mr. Rosenstiel, "Local TV makes more mistakes than network TV, and network TV makes more mistakes than newspapers. The reason isn't competence; it's speed."

It's a lesson ABC learned earlier this year when a headline on its Web site announced that Timothy McVeigh was found guilty in the Oklahoma City bombing trial - an hour before the judge read the verdict. At the moment the announcement appeared, another headline flashed on-screen indicating the verdict was not guilty. In its haste to be first with the story, a staffer at the site mistakenly released the two headlines simultaneously.