BOSTON — Years ago, when I worked in radio, a friend told me that if I couldn't find the answer to a question, all I had to do was ask it on-air and some listener would call with the information. Sure enough, the first time I tried it, I received not one, but 10 calls.
There was a flip side, however, to this "response mechanism." If I mispronounced a word, someone would call - I use to call them Grammar Police - and straighten me out. But truth be known, those calls made me pay more attention to what I said on-air.
Now imagine having millions of "listeners" responding to your errors. That's the situation a reporter faces every time his or her story is posted on a Web site. It's enough to make any self-respecting reporter's hair stand on end.
Yet, when we hear so many stories about reporters and editors fabricating sources or taking shortcuts with stories, it may also be the "response mechanism" that will make journalism better. With so many people "listening," bad reporting will be spotted and condemned in a wink.
CNN learned this recently when it aired and published its Tailwind story that alleged the US military used nerve gas on deserting soldiers. Turns out the story was untrue, and CNN's parent company, Time Warner, was forced to apologize. One reason Time Warner retracted the story - after it thought the original furor had died down - was the response from the Internet community.
In a story posted on Forbes magazine's Digital Tool site (www.forbes.com), writer Brigid McMenamin details how retired Air Force Gen. Perry Smith, CNN's military consultant who quit over the report, used the Internet to gather information to debunk the Tailwind piece.
Using extensive e-mail contacts, bulletin boards, and military Web sites, General Smith contacted Tailwind participants in a matter of days and then used that information to dismantle the original story.
Meanwhile, CNN was being bombarded with angry e-mail from disgusted veterans and others who felt the piece had missed the mark.
CNN is not the first news media company to discover that the Internet is a powerful tool for opponents. Last year, America Online tried to change its user agreement so that it could sell customers' names to marketing firms. An eagle-eyed AOL user spotted the change and notified various Web sites and e-mail groups. AOL was overwhelmed with negative feedback and quickly announced it would rescind the change.
Why is all this important to you and me, and to journalism? Well, as Net guru Esther Dyson told us when she visited the e-Monitor several months ago (www.csmonitor.com/mixed_media/cybercoverage/cyberview/dyson.html), the Net gives readers the ability to prevent reporters and editors from imposing their version of events, particularly if that version is not correct. It also gives readers more choice, so that they don't have to rely on the same old sources of news if they don't want to.
And that's a good thing, because it means that, as access to the Web grows, more people will be able to give immediate feedback to journalists. Which also means we've got to be on our toes. And that will make us better journalists.
* Tom Regan is the associate editor of The Christian Science Monitor's electronic edition. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org