The Internet allows online journalists to post information almost as soon as they receive it. That rush to production has allowed rumor to pass as reporting and electronic processing to pass for editing. One of the most serious charges that can be leveled against any journalist is that he or she has violated journalistic values of accuracy, balance and perspective that are a part of the profession's socialization.(1) For the online journalist, the temptation to bypass traditional journalistic processes may be all the more tempting since they are thought to be "nerdy looking youngsters"(2) and more likely to weigh technology and marketing over journalism.(3)
The story of Matt Drudge "breaking" the story of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair focused the world's attention not only on Drudge but also on all journalism disseminated via the Internet. Salon's decision to publish a story about Sen. Henry Hyde's affair, 30 years after the fact, fueled speculation that online journalists were not only quick to publish, but also willing to disseminate a story rejected by traditional media as not newsworthy. And in the case of The Dallas Morning News, its web site caused the newspaper the embarrassment of disseminating false information, for which it later apologized.(4)
Drudge, Salon and the News' mistake aside, what are the journalistic values of those working in this new media environment? How do online journalists see themselves in relationship to traditional journalistic roles and functions? How fair are the characterizations of online journalists? Are they indeed younger, more concerned with technology than good journalism, and perhaps less ethical than their traditional media counterparts?
Little is known about these journalists. Only recently have attempts been made to form an organization of online journalists, the Online News Association. One of the organizers freely admits that his invitations to join were issued based on "who I knew and whose e-mail addresses I had in my address book."(5) Among the topics the group hopes to address is credibility of the online media. At the heart of that is, of course, the credibility of the journalists working in the new media. It stands to reason that the online media will reflect the values of those producing the content.(6) It, therefore, seems critical to study those journalists to learn not only who they are, but also what they believe is their role as journalists. There are about 1,000 online daily newspapers in the United States.(7) If they only had one employee each, that alone would constitute a large and influential group of journalists. In addition, the potential audience for online media grows each day, and it is currently estimated at nearly 378 million worldwide.(8)
Critics have expressed concern that cyberspace holds a host of problems and possibilities that journalists have not seen before.(9) The speed of dissemination, the worldwide audience, the possibilities for interactivity, competition from non-media companies and the increasing demand for profitability are changing the media environment,(10) How do online journalists view their roles and values in the midst of such a fast-paced and changing environment? Is the online environment more of an influence than the media and companies that employ these journalists? For example, do journalists employed by The New York Times Electronic Media Co. hold different views and values than those employed at the online site of the Naples Daily News?
This paper seeks to provide information and understanding about online media journalists. It examines what they say is important to them as journalists and compares their responses to studies of journalists working in traditional media. The categories established by Weaver and Wilhoit(11) of how journalists tend to view their roles serve as the base line for the study, but those studies occurred before the advent of the Internet and the journalists who now practice their trade on it. …