Monday, August 24, 2009

The Tip of the Iceberg

As a trained journalist and veteran copy editor, I've been expecting this.

I've been hearing the praises sung for online journalism, for so–called "citizen journalists" who can post their reports directly to their employers' websites from remote locations, no copy editors needed.

Speed is the desired virtue. It is prized over accuracy. The old–fashioned copy desk slows things down. And many online news sites have dramatically reduced — or eliminated altogether — that tedious copy desk that seemed to gum up the works at a morning newspaper when it was late at night and everybody wanted to go home.

Maybe so, but that old–fashioned copy desk tended to be populated by people who had studied libel in school and were trained to double–check facts. Sometimes, they merely saved their employers a little embarrassment. Other times, they saved them considerably more than that.

There was a time when both print publications and broadcast news outlets placed as much emphasis on accuracy as they did speed. But the priorities seemed to change when personal computers were introduced into the mix.

When did news outlets decide that copy desks couldn't help them avoid pitfalls in communications law — and thus were expendable? Has communications law changed because the method of delivery has changed?

I don't know the specifics of this particular case, but I think we're seeing the start of content chaos on the internet.

Noam Cohen of the New York Times reports that Wikipedia "will begin imposing a layer of editorial review on articles about living people" in the coming weeks.

"The change is part of a growing realization on the part of Wikipedia's leaders that as the site grows more influential, they must transform its embrace–the–chaos culture into something more mature and predictable," Cohen writes.

I can't help wondering, though, if this lesson might have more meaning if something of perceived value was on the line. Apparently, Wikipedia's seemingly open policy allowing anyone to edit its articles (a policy that has been limited, Cohen reports) hasn't led to any court challenges of which I am aware.

Instead, Cohen writes, "The new system comes as some recent studies have found Wikipedia is no longer as attractive to first–time or infrequent contributors as it once was."

If this decision is being spearheaded by unfavorable survey results, that suggests to me that no one is suing Wikipedia over anything that has been posted by its "citizen journalists" so far. Whatever has occurred may only be regarded as a mild embarrassment — something akin to a prank.

But that also suggests to me that many allegedly information–oriented websites really are being run by marketers and public relations specialists. That isn't really new in the Fourth Estate, but it seems to have more influence in the digital world. These are people who are driven by profit margins and spin. In their eyes, content is a necessary evil that can be produced by anyone, and accuracy is nice to have — but not essential.

Cohen writes that the shift in editorial policy is a result of Wikipedia's acknowledgement that it has grown and wields greater influence in the world than it did. But copy editors have always known that the value of accuracy has never depended on the size of the audience.

Wikipedia is only the first high–profile battleground.

I believe the battle between communications law and the internet is merely beginning.

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