While being a drawing presence, the technology involved in building websites may be one of the largest stumbling blocks to credibility. The bells and whistles that are woven into the Web are designed to be attractive to a generation that grew up on television. A generation that may grow bored with static text, will be drawn to video clips, audio feeds, and chat rooms. A sensitive balance between news and content will be necessary to maintain an image of authority to keep the trust of newshounds, while providing a cutting-edge image as well to entice Internet users with a casual interest in news. As Fred Mann wrote in The American Editor magazine, 'Can you be both authoritative and cool? (You're parents couldn't.)"
While the users' trends will influence the future of news sites, the creators of the myriad of websites available will also hold the fate of Internet news in their hands. According to Network Wizards, an Internet analysis firm, there were 16,000,000 Internet hosts in the world in January of 1997. According to their numbers, the amount of Internet hosts will reach 100,000,000 by January 2000. Of these sites, Editor and Publisher magazine has found 7,000 newspaper sites. The proliferation of news sites has been blamed, in part, on the so-called "Gutenburg effect." This idea says that because anyone with access to a computer can post information or opinion to the Internet, the word 'publisher" is meaningless. In effect, everyone is a publisher.
In the past, the right to publish was somewhat protected against abuse by the sheer cost of the process. Publishing was not a business every man could be involved in, preventing the spread of callous and libelous words by a person on a whim. Today, a person like Matt Drudge can post a rumor on his website and by 6:30 p.m. the story is leading the evening news, only to be corrected sheepishly the next day. The harm will already have been done though, to the victim of the rumor and to the reputation of journalism.
So how could the town criers of the 'Net, one of the biggest threats to on-line credibility, be controlled by the news sites. An attempt was made to regulate news on the 'Net through a seal that would be used by approved sites to signify that they were trustworthy. This idea just raised more questions, including the one that has been asked forever: 'Who decides what is news?" The group that would oversee the ratings project handed out and denied the approval on their own guidelines, creating controversy and invoking the dreaded first amendment argument. Time Inc., one of the main groups involved in fighting the ratings, said in their press release, 'We believe that the First Amendment would be endangered by any effort to apply ratings to the suitability of news."
This, and other, arguments over on-line ethics have tempered the enthusiasm over the Internet as the new news. As much of the Internet is new to journalism and has opened doors and raised questioned never asked by the printed page, the Pandora's box that was opened when on-line news began will continue to haunt the cyber-newsroom, waiting for the Internet version of The New York Times v. Sullivan to help define the boundaries of the on-line news sandbox.
Yet, ultimately, credibility may not be an ethics or quality question. The economics of the situation, a factor that seems to weigh heavily on all parts of Internet journalism, may force on-line news to redefine itself. In April 1998, the Australian Olympics committee announced a policy that slashed Internet coverage of the 2000 Summer Games to the bare bones essentials. The reason behind this move was the effect of the coverage of the 1998 Winter Games.
The Internet coverage of the games in Nagano, Japan set new records for Internet usage, while television coverage set new lows in viewership. Determined to help the medium that pays hundreds of millions of dollars for rights, the Olympic Committee came down hard on the multimedia presentation of the game on the 'Net. Video coverage on the Internet is completely banned from the 2000 games, while on-site reports will be limited to pool coverage. Just as newspapers saw the threat of television on its kingdom, television is now learning that the Internet is a potential adversary.
There is one more option for on-line journalism's credibility. Because of the open flow of information that characterizes the Internet, there has been discussion that the very idea of news will change, rendering the credibility issue moot. Michael Riley, head of the political website allpolitics.com said, 'There is a possibility in this media to do some very good things if we don't let our fear destroy the potential."
The idea of a new form of information, one moderated by people, is championed by Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of the Ethernet and founder of 3Com. This 'community content" would carry the power of a conversation between neighbors, a fitting metaphor among talk of a global community. The words of your fellow man may fall upon ears that block the media, and become acceptable as fact. The push toward further interactivity on the Internet through chat rooms and bulletin boards may be the first step toward a society in which news is passed by word of mouth instead of through the Fourth Estate.
The chances of this happening are slim though, if the current status of society is taken into account. With a decreasing rate of literacy and an increasing dependence upon the mass media for information it isn't likely that the 'unwashed masses" will rise up and throw off their info-shackles. More likely, the Internet will take the place of town meetings and newsletters, effectively passing word along through communities, while news will be received from authoritative sources, returning to the question of who are the authoritative sources on the 'Net?