In new media and old the question has to now be framed as what is good journalism.
Rathergate and Trent Lott
Rathergate is a great example of people online fact checking a major news organization and catching them practicing sloppy journalism. The fact checking, however, did not require a great deal of investigation. It required a couple of observant people to pick up on the anachronisms and point them out. Once that happened online communities spread the word quickly.
Similarly Trent Lott's comments at Strom Thurmond's birthday party were not reported first by blogs. It was the traditional media who reported the story. Then they tried to loose it and once again the online community came together to ensure they were not able to do so. As a result of the online community Senator Lott was moved down from one of the most powerful politicians in Washington to being one of the top hundred. Given the millions of people in the country it is not a great fall. It was however, another great example of online journalists keeping their traditional media counterparts honest.
More and more frequently there is a trend towards posting audio recordings of interviews conducted with media members to online forums. This helps to make sure the full and correct story is out there. I've done my share of both being interviewed and interviewing others. In writing about these interviews I try to be as fair to the person as I know how to be. Does my bias interject itself? I'm certain it does to an extent. What I'm not sure is if it is the extent that some feel it might be. Having been on the other side of the camera more than a few times too, I know that in cases where people have no 'bias' or reason to want to get it wrong they still do. I could look at this and say they were trying to do it wrong, or know that they did and maybe weren't trying.
What, then is the difference between a professional journalist and someone wth another day job? A lot of it goes to making the time to get the story. As I noted the Watergate "story" was actually over 400 stories that were spread out over more than 2 years. In more modern examples this might have been a story about a break-in at a hotel. Without the incessant digging of people who were able to get to sources and get the whole story we might live in a very different country now.
Somewhat by happenstance there was a program on last night, part of the Annenberg/CPB project, on news writing. It had several people talking (at least one in front of their Mac SE) about what it takes to write well. They espoused the conventional wisdom that a new reporter needs to cut their teeth on hard news reporting to get the practices of getting the facts for a story down cold. The late, Gene Siskel, had an interesting perspective in reviewing a movie a writer should be able to say they don't like a movie and still give the reader enough information to be able to form an opinion that they might like the movie.
The editorial page is fading faster than most other parts of traditional media as corporate journalism and newspaper monocultures take over where the traditions of two (or more) paper towns are now all but gone. These corporate driven, bottom line focused, companies care more about driving profits than making sure the story is right. Several people were fired at CBS over the Rathergate documents. They are the fall guys and gals for a much bigger system that promotes sensationalism and in your face coverage over thoughtful journalism.
The trend towards more people writing more content is raising the level of discourse. The important question becomes how do we improve upon the quality of journalism across the board. How, in the midst of a right-now culture, do we make sure that the fourth estate does not exchange quick for quality? How do we ensure there will be people to pursue the big stories, and more importantly the small stories that have a big impact on people's lives?
A part of the answer may have to do with local journalism. There are, especially in the West, millions of square miles that are under-represented by traditional media.