Digital Arson, not Journalism

What happens when an anonymous blogger presents false information about your company as “fact”?

Kerosene journalism. That's what legendary Wash-ington Post editor Ben Bradlee called it.

"In this genre of journalism, reporters pour kerosene on whatever smoke they can find, before they determine what's smoking and why," wrote the man who helped break the Watergate scandal in 1971, adding that "the flames that result can come from arson, not journalism".

Back then Bradlee was commenting on tabloidization of the news, but I can't help but wonder what he makes of our current media landscape, the WikiBlogTubeSpace world we now live in.

The age of user-driven content is here, and don't doubt for a minute that publishers and journalists aren't feeling new pressures to compete in a world where ethics, standards and editorial accountability seem to matter less each day. And I'm not just talking about the incessant run of stories about Paris

Hilton or Anna Nicole Smith masquerading as news because they rate well.

At Computerworld recently all we had to do was walk to the office next door to witness a painful example of how the blogosphere can affect traditional publishing. Specifically, I'm talking about the experience of GamePro magazine, which until recently was also published by Computerworld's publisher, IDG Australia.

A false rumour was posted to a competitor's gaming Web site accusing a GamePro reviewer of taking bribes in exchange for a negative review. Digg got hold of the comment and a short time later the rumour was all over the Web.

The story was patently libellous. IDG's execs were alerted, and within hours the offending allegations were removed. But it was too late, the damage had been done. By then the story had spread to other Web sites, forums and blogs.

The Web, in general, and blogs and forums, in particular, offer us a wide variety of information and news. But what happens when some anonymous blogger claims to be "in the know" about a project at your company and then presents fiction as fact? In another recent example, this time in the US, "independent" political bloggers were found to have been paid by the campaign of presidential-hopeful John Edwards to promote his views without declaring their allegiance to the public.

The rules and code of ethics that are the cornerstone of traditional media do not exist in the blogosphere. When you find an error in Computerworld, you can ask the writer or their editor for a retraction or a correction. Not so in the blogosphere. Digg did the right thing; they removed the offending article. But in most cases, however, there is no authority to invoke and false information lives on in the ether of the Net forever.

Despite all of the recent pronouncements on the death of print and other established media, traditional publishing is not obsolete yet. Indeed, the pitfalls of user generated content are reinforcing the importance of editorial credibility.

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