Sifting through Web news

A few weeks back, the Pew Center for the People and the Press released a poll that made a lot of news people in Washington nervous. The poll showed that more and more people were forsaking watching the evening news to read headlines and stories on the Internet.

More surprising was the finding that people trusted old media Web sites more than the old media themselves - that is to say they believed ABCNews.com was more reliable than ABC News and

USAToday.com is more reliable than USA Today.

Leave aside, for a moment, the logic here - maybe it's Americans' limitless faith in technology - and focus on the larger point. People believe much of what they read on the Internet, and as the presidential race reaches it most critical time this has some repercussions.

But don't fear too much.

A study done early this spring by the Committee of Concerned Journalists, which I worked on, found that many of the bigger and better known Web sites out there - particularly those with an old-media connection - do a pretty good job of bringing you political news.

I talked about "portal" sites in Thursday's column. Now let's look at some popular strictly news sites.

The New York Times,

nytimes.com, and Washington Post, washingtonpost.com, had two of the best sites the group examined. Both sites are a good place to read that day's paper, but both were updated as the news warranted.

When a serious story broke on the campaign trail, each site would change it's front page to reflect the changes, but in the event of more minor news, the sites did not blow things out of proportion. New stories were added, but they did not knock the most important stories out of the top slot simply because they were new. Both sites generally have that critical component of good journalism - good editorial judgment.

(By the way, in the name of shameless self-promotion, the Monitor's site csmonitor.com, which was not examined in the study, has won awards for its work.)

The two 24-hour news channel sites the group looked at, MSNBC.com and CNN.com, similarly showed they understood their old-media parents.

Both sites have a strong focus on updating, sometimes overdone - particularly at MSNBC's site where lead stories at the end of the day sometimes looked like a stew with 50 cooks.

Slightly more of CNN.com's stories were written only by staff - 25 percent of the pieces compared with 17 percent at MSNBC - and CNN.com was also slightly better about updating their lead stories with completely new stories, rather than just adding information into a story that was already there.

Both sites, however, gave good solid straight news accounts of breaking stories.

The study found that some of the most interesting journalism on established Web sites was happening on the two online magazines the group looked at: NationalReview.com and Salon.com (for which I have written - my this gets incestuous).

National Review's Web site tries to be the Internet's smart, hip, conservative voice, and it often pulls off this complicated task with great verve. During the primary season, this site wrote a story about an old feud between John McCain and Long Island Congressman Peter King and headlined with how McCain dissed King - using language this family newspaper can't even reprint.

Though this site does sometimes break news - they were first with the McCain/King story - many of the site's stories are not well sourced. This site should not be seen as a place to "catch up on the news" but rather a place to go to find interesting commentary on it.

The same could be said of Salon.com. Though you can read wire copy on Salon, and the site's campaign trail dispatches are well-reported, this is a site that helps round out your picture of the news - not the foundation for it.

There is little question that this site has a liberal bent - and a bit of an attitude - but once you get past the attitude there is some interesting reporting here.

A week after the Washington primary, Salon reported that the networks who had declared Bush the winner in that state had actually made a mistake. Once the absentee votes were tallied, McCain had actually won Washington.

Of course, all of this is simply a sample of what's out on the Internet.

There are sites full of gossip - some almost certainly libelous - and sites that simply get things wrong.

The Internet is like a newsstand with thousands of newspapers and magazines.

It's full of good and bad. Pick your outlets wisely and read carefully.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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