Friday, February 08, 2008

A newspaper’s “cautionary tale for the Web era.”

Like you, I spend a lot of time on the Internet. Many times during the day I surf the Net to look for information on business, hobbies and interests or to find out what’s going on in the world I live in.

I remember reading an article on the Net where the author said something along the lines of, “It’s on the Internet; it must be true, right?”

Not necessarily. In fact, not even close.

Rocky Mountain News Editor John Temple’s column on Saturday, February 2 brought focus to the whole issue of anonymous posting, or unsubstantiated reporting via the Web. The story centered on a Colorado state legislator caught in a compromising situation with a lobbyist. That legislator has since resigned.

But Mr. Temple took us through his own organization’s process of getting it right, both in the print and online editions of the Rocky.

He’s as competitive as any legitimate journalist in wanting to get the story first.  He also holds the highest journalistic standards for himself and his organization. Other outlets may have already printed or posted a story. He decided to wait, to gather more corroborated information. Not to be first, but to be right.

John Temple’s issue was simple. The source was anonymous and the lobbyist in question wanted to remain anonymous as well.

Here’s the official policy of the Rocky Mountain News. “The Rocky Mountain News discourages the use of anonymous sources. Their use threatens the credibility of the newspaper because the reader has no way to judge whether the source is reliable and/or whether the source is using the newspaper for his or her own end.”

He stuck to his guns when the Denver Post ran the story, but remained suspicious when that story also appeared on political websites.

Ultimately the story was indeed true, the legislator admitted to what happened and his resignation was part of the official record. That’s when the Rocky ran the story. They waited and got it right. To do otherwise wasn’t worth the risk to the paper’s credibility.

John Temple calls it all a “cautionary tale about the Internet.” He says that many stories posted on the Web are indeed true. But he adds that many others aren’t.

And his ultimate point is, readers don’t know the difference.

Finally Mr. Temple says that his paper did the right thing in staying clear of the story until facts were authenticated. Otherwise he says, “Anonymous people with axes to grind will exploit the media for their own agendas-destroying reputations along the way.”

John Temple and the staff of the Rocky Mountain News are among the very best at what they do. For just the reasons I outlined above.

I congratulate them.

Do you believe everything you read on the Internet? Let me know by contacting me at


John W. Scherer

(John W. Scherer is CEO and Founder of Video Professor, Inc)