E-mail interviews and Web searches can be helpful when used with discretion, but some experts fret that reporters are letting their guard down, making themselves vulnerable to online hoaxes.
For all the Internet has turned out not to be, its one shining light has been its vast repository of data, with seemingly everything stored somewhere, searchable via Google. And for that, it's been a journalist's dream, bringing research and background information to the desktop, with instant electronic communication via e-mail and instant messaging reaching new sources around the globe.
The e-mail interview and Google search have reshaped journalism, especially for the time-pressed, multitasking, hyperkinetic journalist of 2003. But have these tools swallowed up journalists whole, spitting them out as Net junkies who rely too heavily on technology? Are they forgetting about face-to-face interactions, phone interviews, the word on the street (the actual physical street), shoe leather reporting (using real shoes), and the good old public library?
Harvard extension teacher John Lenger wrote infamously in Columbia Journalism Review last fall about how his journalism night class was supposed to use documents he gave them about a historical land dispute from 1732. Though Lenger told students not to use the Net, they did, and very few came up with anything. "Basic questions weren't addressed because students had difficulty using the libraries and archives that would give them the answers," Lenger wrote. "At semester's end, we still didn't have the story.... [Many students] were genuinely surprised that the wisdom of the ages has not been digitized and made accessible through a Web browser. For them, the Internet looks like a free lunch."
Seemingly greater efficiency
A free lunch, no; a great tool, yes. Richard Smith, a staff writer at the Waco Tribune-Herald, said the Net has given reporters a ton of information for stories. "There is so much information that reporters need to develop ways to sometimes deal with the overload," he told me via e-mail. "I look back at life before the Internet and ask, 'How did we get by?' The last two state legislative sessions are good examples. I can remember having to wait for legislative staffs to mail or fax pending bills to me, where now I can just pull them up almost after they have been filed."
Eric Meyer, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Illinois and managing partner of NewsLink Associates, said the Internet has changed the way journalists work as much as the phone, almost as much as the telegraph and more than the tape recorder. But Meyer harbors some curmudgeonly thoughts about the Net.
"Never has it been easier to seem to do more in less time," Meyer said via e-mail. "The operative word is 'seem.' A journalist can now find a story almost identical to one he or she has proposed and, with a few well-placed e-mails, assemble by the end of the day reportage deceptively as detailed as the original."
And what have we lost in the chase for the quickie story with quickie answers to quickie questions? Perhaps the depth of character we could get in person, the attention to scenery, sounds and smells, lost in many of today's stories. "Instead of face-to-face interviews, in which the reporter discovers angles that had not occurred to him or her, the exchanges become knee-jerk answers to knee-jerk questions," Meyer said. "And never is there a clue in body language or conversational cadence to indicate the existence of a greater, previously not understood, truth worth pursuing.... I often speak of the Internet as having infinite breadth and infinite depth. Alas, we rarely use both to their best ends simultaneously."
The very exercise of this article proved to be salient for Meyer, as he noted the efficiency of using e-mail to get him questions that might not have reached him by phone. But he also had the chance to ruminate over answers, taking away spontaneity and a quick follow-up question possible during a phone conversation. Jonathan Dube, proprietor of CyberJournalist.net and senior producer at MSNBC.com, wrote a column devoted to e-mail interview techniques for Poynter. The impetus of his column was a hoax perpetrated on a ComputerWorld reporter who believed an e-mail from someone purporting to be a terrorist hacker.
"E-mail interviews can be a great time saver," Dube told me, ironically, via e-mail. "But relying on them too much has disadvantages, the biggest being you don't know who is replying and you don't have the chance to quickly pepper the source with follow-up questions...Yet journalists keep making the same mistakes of not verifying information over and over again." That fact led Dube to start a page on "Cyber Slip-Ups," though they are geared more toward Web site administration mishaps.
E-mail and the library
Meyer too mentioned that I should be wary of believing that his e-mail was from him, despite his typically flowery and humorous prose. "Do you even know for sure that these are my answers and that Larry Pryor or someone else at OJR isn't spoofing my return address?" he asked cynically. Funny he brought up Pryor because the USC professor of online journalism, who is currently on sabbatical, had just e-mailed his thoughts on the subject. Pryor said that a strong e-mail signature -- with phone number, fax number, etc. -- is "hard to fake" though probably not foolproof.
Pryor believes the Net has transformed newsrooms for the better. Before he got new media religion, Pryor served as assistant metropolitan editor in charge of specialist topics at the Los Angeles Times and as an environment writer. "In the mid-60s, reporters went out of the building a lot," he said. "We walked to offices, drove to interviews, met people at bars and restaurants. As deadlines got more crowded because of competition with TV and as urban traffic got impossible...reporters began using the phones almost exclusively and never got out. I think the Net, using source material through search engines and contacting sources via e-mail, has opened newsrooms up again and made them less insular."
But despite the hype around Google as God, that search engine -- and the Net in general -- does not provide all the answers. Librarian, consultant and ResourceShelf.com proprietor Gary Price hammers away at one Big Theme: "Everything cannot be found online," he told me, on the phone. "It sounds obvious, but it's not. Plus you can't always assume you'll find things on the 'open' Web. You might have to use a directory or use the Web to track down an author that you'll have to e-mail. Plus the credibility of your source is a huge issue."
Price wrote a handy Weblog posting on how to perfect Web searches. He likes to remind people that even Google engineers once admitted that Teoma and AlltheWeb had better search results. So is Google's popularity just about better marketing? "Abso-friggin-lutely," said Price. "They've captured the power of viral marketing better than anyone. People think if it's not on Google, it doesn't exist. But I've found Daypop to be better at times. For journalists, it's all about variety, so they should keep an open mind."
Price said journalists should check out directories, such as the Librarians' Index to the Internet and Infomine -- not to mention the great collections of data at public libraries' online databases.
In the end, the Net can be used in smart ways to augment background information or dig up personal dirt. Or it can be abused for plagiaristic purposes or fodder for copycat me-too stories. "The Internet is the perfect chain-paper journalistic gimmick," Meyer said. "In the wrong hands, it's cheap, fast and predictable. Instead of enabling greatness, it enables journalistic lethargy. But that's human nature. The medium offers us opportunities, good and bad. Reporters, good and bad, make use of them. And stories, good and bad, are published as a result."