Is the internet eroding journalism standards?
Emily Badger:Is the internet eroding journalism standards?
03 May 11

The rise of the internet is frequently accompanied by fears of the decline in quality journalism, as organisations like WikiLeaks have blurred old rules around the standards of a responsible fourth estate and as cell phone-wielding citizens have collapsed old distinctions about exactly who counts as a journalist.

If everyone gets to be a reporter on the internet, the logic goes, then hardly anyone is a true professional, with the professional’s trained code of conduct for handling sources, content and publishing platforms.

Twitter, after all, has no ombudsman, and citizen journalists have no style books, and the internet has no editor.

The question was debated Tuesday, on the final day of World Press Freedom Day celebrations in Washington. Will the real-time transparency inherent in the internet in fact hold traditional media more accountable? Will the web develop its own verification system for high-quality content? Does anonymity create an online for-free-all for libellous claims that would have never found a home in an old-fashioned newspaper? If the media exists to serve the public interest, will bloggers, tweeters and citizen journalists share that goal?

Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, dismissed the idea that the internet has wiped out some past mythical age of high-quality journalism. The 1980s and 1990s, she reminds, brought us an explosion in bandwidth and advertising dollars — and with them an explosion in profit — and entertainment-driven tabloid journalism needed to run alongside all those ads.

“The thing about the web is there is no dead air time, there’s nothing to fill, there are no lights to be kept on in the studio,” she said. “There’s no requirement to fill pages 8-12 when there’s no news … I would like to knock the myth on the head that degradation of the quality of journalism has come out of the inception of the web. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Without that pressure to produce content for the sake of content, or to justify advertising, she offered a hopeful note for the end of this year’s press freedom events.

“I see more excellent journalism now on the internet,” Bell said, “than I ever did reading newspapers.”