I. Introduction

Historical background

Historically, the men and women who report and distribute news have been valuable members of society. Hunters and gatherers relied on each other for the information they needed to survive. Generals sent messengers on dangerous missions to pass along their intelligence. Kings used all sorts of media to spread information — and misinformation — to their subjects.

With the invention of the printing press, the potential arose to make news something other than the province of the privileged. In America's early days, pamphlets and newspapers stirred the passion needed to send England's army home in defeat. With the invention of the telegraph, news could travel quickly from the scene of an event to a newspaper thousands of miles away, where readers could get the information as soon as the words could be set into type. All over the world, and especially in the New World, newspapers entrenched themselves as the primary mode of communication.

The inventions of the 20th century have forced a constant redefinition of the role of newspapers. Newspapers slowly surrendered their dominance over the flow of news as radio and television grew in importance. By the time a newspaper is printed, the typical reader may have heard the important news of the day on a living-room television or a car radio.

In the 1990s, the Internet sprang quickly from a small communication network to a mainstream news source, and the pace of change accelerated for newspapers and their counterparts in radio and television. The World Wide Web and e-mail offer new avenues for distributing news for every newspaper, radio station, and TV station, and these same tools yield new competition in the form of large Internet companies and even tiny news organizations that are made possible by the low operating costs of a Web site. Concurrently, cable news networks have proliferated, adding to the number of 24-hour news services. Long-established news providers have been forced to adapt quickly to the new opportunities — and new demands — of giving news in new formats at unprecedented speed. This paper will explore this process of adaptation and explain how journalists are defining their role in today's rapidly changing media industry.

The importance of this question is demonstrated by the intense scrutiny given to journalism in recent years. The news business faces external examination from sources such as the magazine Brill's Content, established by lawyer and entrepreneur Steven Brill to bring the discussion of journalism issues out of the insular world of journalists and into the mainstream. In his criticism of the "new media culture," Brill lists the following elements:

This scrutiny is hardly limited to external sources. A veteran newspaper journalist interviewed for this paper said of the Internet, "It is important to know the source of your information, and know what standards that source uses in gathering and disseminating information. Is it checked? Or just passed on without checking or context?" 2 Two prominent media critics working for the organization Project for Excellence in Journalism, Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach, issued an ominous warning about the general state of journalism: "A journalist's job is to sift out the facts from the allegations, and to provide citizens with accurate reliable information upon which they can self-govern. That process is at risk." 3

This paper will examine that process and the risk it faces. Today's tools give news providers great power to inform or misinform; this paper will attempt to show how the news industry is using this power.