March 6, 2012

Be a Hero for Journalism

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Our demand for information is higher than ever before. We want the news as it happens, and we want it for free. We’re in a constant deluge of data, and we’re processing at 70 words per minute.

It’s exhausting. It’s making us lazy. And it’s moving us closer to a day without newspapers. Traditional news organizations have always sought to get it fast, get it first and get it right, but as the speed of change in the information industry outstrips their ability to adapt, these principles of fairness and accuracy could be in jeopardy.

You, astute Cornellian consumer of information, probably think you know where this is going. I’ll lament the sorry state of the media industry today, and wax nostalgic for the good old days when everyone read the paper and journalism was a viable and honorable career option. I’ll probably make some references to Clark Kent and Peter Parker and mourn the imminent demise of the heroic investigative reporters who are their real-life counterparts. Then I’ll paint The New York Times as an ivory tower of the news industry and whine about how people suck for not buying their morning papers anymore.

This isn’t that column. For one, arguments based on nostalgia are severely limited in their usefulness — if only for the obvious fact that the present exists because it out-competed the past (that’s a story for a different week).

No — this isn’t a column about nostalgia for a bygone era of journalism. It’s a column about today’s consumers of news, and what their preferences could mean for the industry tomorrow.

A 2010 report by the Pew research group concluded that 44 percent of information consumers get their news from digital sources, compared to 34 percent on the radio and 31 percent in print. Those numbers aren’t as damning as one might expect from diatribes on the decline of print journalism, but keep in mind that the study is two years old, and I can only expect that the digital gap has widened since then.

What I found most striking is that according to Pew, more than eight in 10 online readers receive or share links to articles on a regular basis.

With so much information out there, it makes sense that what we read is highly influenced by what we can most easily access. We click on the stories Google generates first and our friends post, retweet or e-mail.

It makes sense, but should it?

Today, everything that’s online — good, bad, ugly or false — is essentially equal public record. For those in the media industry, public record and freedom of information are almost as sacrosanct as the AP stylebook and All the President’s Men. The problem is, Google doesn’t always differentiate Gawking from good reporting, and neither do our Facebook friends. Just because everyone else is reading it and the Google algorithm likes it doesn’t mean it’s the best thing out there.

Clicking on the first Google result is easier than opening a new window and finding an article on a newspaper’s website. But if you respect the institution of journalism, it’s important to realize that every time a consumer reads an article cached on a search engine or reposted on an aggregate site, a newspaper loses revenue. It’s like saying you don’t believe in fairies. (If this were that column I talked about in the beginning, I might go so far as to say a little print edition somewhere dies, and then continue the slightly ridiculous Peter Pan analogy with, “For journalism, ‘to die would be an awfully big adventure.’” But, like I said, this isn’t that column.)

And so, we arrive at a dilemma for media consumers today: Is original reporting, legitimized by its institutional standards, worth more than a diffused version of that same story? And — here’s the million dollar question for news organizations — are consumers willing to invest our time and money in it?

One answer puts Internet trollers on the same search engine starting line as Pulitzer winners, and the other has the potential to spur reinvestment in tried and true sources of good journalism.

It’s easy to say that more information is undeniably better, and that today’s media environment is preferable to one dominated by a few newspaper giants. As a kid, I had a blanket with all 45 words of the First Amendment on it. Needless to say, I value freedom of information. But not all information is equal, and not all information is free. There’s information, and then there’s journalism. The good stuff — the hard-hitting stories that call on institutions of power to own up to their mistakes and remain accountable to the people — is journalism. Without it, news on the Internet is just directionless noise. And without consumer-driven revenue, media organizations can’t afford the resources that go into watchdog reporting.

We want our information fast, and we want it free, but we should recognize what we stand to lose before it’s gone. Good online citizens balance their demand for speed and convenience with their standards for quality and integrity. Where you stand in that balance is up to you, but I draw from the quintessential reporter’s handbook: When I want reliable information, I go to a reliable source.

Dani Neuharth-Keusch is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences and The Sun’s 129th Associate Editor. She may be reached at dneuharth-keusch@cornellsun.com. Collapse the Box appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Dani Neuharth-Keusch

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