Back PageMarch 1999: Vol. 78, No. 2

The (Mis)Information Age

The Internet gets caught in the crossfire as two journalism professors—former Associated Press correspondent Conrad Fink and Web-site guru Scott Shamp—debate its merits.

FINK: The essential question in the Information Age is where Mr. and Mrs. America can go to find the truth, which is an elusive little beauty. I've chased her for 45 years, using all the skills I've developed in journalism—and still she eludes me. To expect truth to emerge unbidden from the intellectual anarchy of the Internet is to expect rose bushes to spring forth from a dung heap.

SHAMP: I think we have to understand that people today have a very different relationship with concepts like truth and objectivity—which are central components of good journalism—than they did 50 years ago. I'm not saying that we're going to do away with newspapers and all the holy writs that go along with them just because of the Internet. But we can't expect all of our other channels to choose the same mission and identity as newspapers.

FINK: The danger is that a lot of people perceive themselves to be informed when they play on the Internet for an hour. I think "Buyer Beware" is more important than ever, as a heavier burden of verifying information falls to the consumer.

SHAMP: And that's why I say the Internet is just another "brand" of information. Newspapers were our principal brand when we lived in a channel-deprived environment, but now we're chock full of channels. When newspapers were our primary source of news, we had to train editors to evaluate all the pieces of information and present them as objectively as possible. When it comes to the Internet, we've got to train the users.

FINK: I would no more shut down Internet discourse than I would shut down the U.S. Postal Service. But if Matt Drudge unleashes a story on the Internet, a lot of people are going to believe what he's saying—even if it's about moon men landing in a pumpkin patch—because he's been right about things . . . oh, maybe 50 percent of the time.

SHAMP: Nobody is going to confuse Matt Drudge with the Wall Street Journal, even if he did break the Clinton-Lewinsky story. Nobody is going to say, "If I need factual information, my first stop is Matt Drudge." People understand that truth exists in the matrix—the media matrix—and that you get at the truth by analyzing and interpreting all these competing messages. Bottom line, Conrad, I think you're underestimating Mr. and Mrs. America.

FINK: I don't underestimate Mr. and Mrs. America. I've been writing for them for 45 years, and I'm constantly amazed at their powers of perception. But when I was a foreign correspondent in Bombay or Saigon, I figured I'd had a good day if I came up with five provable facts in a day. Turn Mr. and Mrs. America loose in that kind of informational chaos? Forget it.

SHAMP: Why do you think Matt Drudge is popular? Because people think they may be getting the secret scoop from him—that listening to him on the Net may give them the jump on someone who's not. In the grand scheme of things, for those kind of people, getting the jump on new information is worth being wrong sometimes.

FINK: So we shouldn't get upset about a source who's wrong 50 percent of the time? If one of my writers was wrong half the time, I'd fire him!

SHAMP: You'd fire him, but the weird thing is that millions of Net users hire him every day. And I think that's an omen for newspapers. Readership in young people is dying out and newspapers run the risk of being irrelevant to an entire segment of the population.

FINK: What's important, in my view, is that print journalism is looking for new ways to attract young readers. Electronic newspapers are using the same technology Matt Drudge uses, but they're imparting the same sense of responsibility, ethics, and search for the truth to their online version as to the printed page.

SHAMP: What concerns me is that Mr. and Mrs. America may not be turned off by newspapers. They're turned off by serious issues which force them to think. Through one medium or another, we've got to get them back.

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