Online, And In the Middle of the News Revolution

Published on
August 31, 2009

"It is not often that you are aware of the revolution right while you are in the midst of it. But we are," says Alicia C. Shepard, ombudsman at National Public Radio. And with those changes come a host of challenges for journalists working in a fast-changing climate, she recently told a group of broadcasters participating in The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships.

"There's a tendency to think that it's ok to put something up and then change it later but nothing ever disappears from the Web," says Shepard.

Working online requires journalists to work faster than ever before. Readers will move on if your site doesn't have the story - or if what you have up is getting stale. However, the basic ethics of journalism still apply, says Shepard, and posting incorrect information gives the impression that online news is of a lower quality.

Shepard teaches a media ethics course to graduate students at Georgetown University and has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Newark Star-Ledger and Washingtonian magazine. She has mixed feelings about the new features that come with online news.

In reader comments, the 90-9-1 Principle applies, says Shepard. This is a principle for social communities, one that says: 90% of participants are observers and don't contribute, 9% contribute but only occasionally, and 1% drive the discussion.

"I find that the 1% online dominators are rude, not the least bit interested in a real dialogue and scare away those that might want to engage," says Shepard. But for NPR, and most news outlets, there are no resources for comment pre-screening. This puts news outlets in a difficult position. They have to create community to become less like a faceless institution and to foster loyalty. But, according to Shepard, the readers comment section is more diatribe than dialogue.

Journalist blogs, on the other hand, represent a great resource for reporters. In addition to increasing a reporter's transparency and credibility, blogs put a face to a byline, which can be very helpful.

"It is a good way for journalists to hear from online readers and learn more information about a topic they have already written on," says Shepard.

One example Shephard highlighted is Ed Silverman's Pharmalot blog. Silverman wrote for, and was recently bought out by, the Newark Star-Ledger. He focused on the pharmaceutical industry and was able to include stories that might not have made it into the paper. Silverman did one investigative piece after receiving a tip from a reader about illegal sales practices at Pfizer.

Shepard says that reporters have to remember to be careful about what they say in their professional or personal blogs and on Facebook.

"We live in a world where the mike is always on," says Shepard.