On newspapers, Osama bin Laden and Google

The Los Angeles Times weighed in on the new Google News feature which allows sources quoted in stories to respond. After a bizarre lead — “Many publishers consider the Internet, and Google in particular, a greater threat to their livelihoods than Osama bin Laden” — the paper goes on to slam the practice concluding that Google’s efforts are “not journalism.”

It may not be journalism in the traditional sense, but allowing sources to comment on stories that they were part of can help further the quest for truth, which is the purpose of journalism.

Journalists and news organizations have for a long time fought to prevent the transparency and accountability into their work that they demand of government and other corporations.

Instead of fighting such attempts, the media ought to embrace transparency. They should link to original sources whenever possible. This includes press releases, audio from phone or in-person interviews, government documents, etc. For too many stories, it will reveal that the “reporter” has done little more than move paragraphs around from the press release. For other stories, a reader will be able to determine that a quote was taken out of context or the meaning significantly altered. Good. These kind of practice needs to be exposed.

And there will be plenty of stories where the additional content adds credibility to the story and provides more depth for readers who are passionate about the topic.

This kind of transparency will help to increase the credibility of good media organizations and damage the credibility of those who play fast and loose with the facts or take dangerous short cuts.

The Times worries that the comments section in Google News “is likely to be larded with spin, hype and obfuscation” and “won’t help readers separate the factual wheat from the public-relations chaff”. As long as sources are clearly identified, I trust the readers to make that distinction on their own.

As the gatekeepers of what goes into print or on the air, news organizations have historically had tremendous power over the public’s perception of events. Regardless of what Google News does, the Internet has dramatically changed that by giving sources and the public the opportunity to respond. Dan Rather found out the hard way when bloggers exposed serious concerns about the authenticity of documents used as the basis of a report on Bush’s service records.

In the tech world, reporters who misquote a source can pretty much count on having the source call them on it in a post on the source’s blog (or in a comment on the story itself). It’s only a matter of time before other industries catch on.

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About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is Senior Director of product at Amazon (Audible). Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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1 Response to On newspapers, Osama bin Laden and Google

  1. Krista says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post Rocky. For all of the fawning over Web 2.0, Journalism will be among the last hold outs on the ‘command and control’ old media world order.

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