Thursday, March 27, 2008

New media embarasses the old

The Smoking Gun website exposes a major L.A. Times story about Tupac Shakur by a prize-winning investigative reporter as being based on a con-man's hoax. The paper apologizes and will almost certainly be facing major league lawsuits which it might very well lose.

The apology here:,0,2043351.story

The Smoking Gun here:

For those who doubt that the new media is eclipsing the old, this should be exhibit No. 1 to shake that belief.
This is a big deal from the media standpoint. In the newsroom I work in there has been some reluctance to take web media seriously, but I think that reluctance is misplaced. Naturally one can't accept everything that appears in an online report as accurate, but that's also true of print media. I had a friend's grandmother once who swore that what she read in The National Enquirer must be true because they wouldn't have printed it if it weren't true. That was a touching bit of faith but it wasn't true then and isn't true now. Just because something is committed to the printed page doesn't make it so.
The key to credibility in print as well as online media is transparency. In the L.A. Times story, as so many that get into trouble, there's a lot of reliance on unnamed sources. A lot of the big national media outlets have gotten into a bad habit of routinely using unidentified sources. This simply has to stop. There are rare times when you need to use somebody who can't be identified, but when the rare becomes routine it's a problem.
This is less of a problem with more regional and local papers, which very rarely rely on unidentified sources. I've worked at four different small to mid-size daily newspapers and at all of them there was a very high bar to using an unidentified source. It might get OK'd once or twice a year at such a paper.
Especially in stories out of Washington, a look at the N.Y. Times, L.A. Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal you will find unidentified sources almost every day. In many cases it's not obvious why the privilege has been granted. There are partisan attacks and self-serving administration statements given the dignity of print while not giving the reader the means to evaluate the source.
Guys, stop it!
If the source won't allow an ID then don't use the comment! It's as simple as that. Rove needs you to print his spin a lot worse than you need to use it. Really.
If the print media and national broadcast media is to retain any shred of credibility (which, in turn, is its only real edge over the new media) it has to tighten up.

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