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Beware of online news sources

By Derek Lazzaro

Nov. 29, 2004 9:00 p.m.

Millions of people go online every day to read the news. But
many online news sites do not adhere to strict journalistic and
editorial guidelines designed to keep reporters honest. Instead,
many sites have forged their own paths, adapting and bending
existing standards.

The end result is that readers have access to more news than
ever, but they face a glut of information that is not always
logically sorted or carefully edited by traditional standards.

As printed papers fade in popularity and the Internet dominates,
young people may turn to narrowly tailored sites specializing in
news they care about. Blogs that come and go on a daily basis may
replace magazines like “People” and
“Seventeen.”

The effect this will have on democracy will be profound, though
specific effects remain largely unpredictable.

Right now, three of the most popular online news sources are
Yahoo! News, Google News and the Drudge Report. But there are also
countless smaller sites people turn to for news.

Online blogs are perhaps the most problematic new information
source. One of the most memorable examples of blogs-as-news
occurred in the days following the 2004 presidential election.
Blogs and similar sites led the way in criticizing early exit polls
that showed Sen. John Kerry leading President Bush. These early
blog reports caused a stir, but their weak reporting and lack of
credible sourcing meant the stories died before they really got off
the ground.

But other, more traditional forms of news dominate the online
landscape.

Yahoo! News is most like a normal newspaper. I talked with
spokesman Brian Nelson, who fleshed out the details of how Yahoo!
News works.

Like most newspapers, Yahoo! subscribes to wire services, such
as the Associated Press, Reuters and the Agence France-Presse.
These services have traditionally offered hard news feeds with
solid reporting and strict ethical guidelines. Yahoo! also has
deals with approximately 100 other news sources, including papers
such as the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. For the most
part, Yahoo! highlights these first-rate news sources.

Also like a newspaper, Yahoo! has a team of editors who pick the
top stories and hand-select “full-coverage” sections
that include a collection of stories on topics such as the Middle
East or the election.

Google News takes a different approach ““ human editors do
not edit the page at all.

Google spokesperson Eileen Rodriguez directed me to a Google Web
page that explains their news selection process: “The
headlines on the Google News home page are selected entirely by a
computer algorithm, based on many factors, including how often and
on what sites a story appears elsewhere on the web. This is very
much in the tradition of Google’s Web search, which relies
heavily on the collective judgment of Web publishers to determine
which sites offer the most valuable and relevant
information.”

There is no doubt the Google News page delivers a dynamic mix of
stories, but the editor-less approach also produces strange side
effects. Perhaps most serious is that Google’s algorithm
makes no distinction between editorials and straight news. A recent
example of this was an Oregon Register-Guard editorial that served
as the front “news” story on Bush’s Cabinet
shuffle.

As for the Drudge Report, a recent study found it to be the
“most centrist” news site sampled. But Matt Drudge is
personally responsible for picking most of the stories ““ and
in some ways, his site resembles a blog more than a real
newspaper.

There appears to be little institutional framework to underlie
the site. He links readers to various external news sources,
including AP and Reuters. But he is able to select and report
stories with near impunity compared to a traditional newspaper,
which must answer to its readers.

Neither the Drudge Report nor Yahoo! or Google allow readers to
write response letters like a traditional newspaper ““ there
is no obvious way for reader feedback to occur. Only Yahoo! offers
a message board where people can anonymously post about news
stories.

Political science Professor Matthew Baum said he thinks
“gossip disguised as news” ““ as occurs on blog
sites ““ is a bigger problem than editorials on the front page
of a site like Google.

He said people using Google News are probably not the
“average” news consumer, and should be able to tell the
difference between an editorial and a news story.

The changes seen in the world of journalism will have a
significant effect on the future of news reporting. But it is hard
to predict what future generations will know about journalism, or
what they will want to see.

Lazzaro is a fourth-year political science and psychology
student and editorial development director for the Daily Bruin.
E-mail him at [email protected]

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