ONLINE journalism has changed the face of news gathering for ever. And the search power of Google’s amazing algorithms, combined with smart phones and tablets, means that for the first time in human history, almost everyone, from the poorest villagers to the richest men in the world, have access to much the same information.
But without a permanent printed record – produced by a reliable media organisation operating with all the checks and balances that have kept the constraints on our ‘‘free’’ press for the 300 years that recognisable newspapers have been existence – how do we know what to trust on our electronic screens?
The Newcastle Herald will do everything in its power to retain its print editions but the greater the influence of online news sites, the more that trust becomes an issue.
Newspapers have never been perfect, of course, but as the outcry in Britain over newspaper phone-hacking has shown, the print barons can be brought to account.
Equally, the power of media companies – whose crusading journalism has been traditionally cross-subsidised by classified and display advertising – is they have the standing in society and the financial clout to stand up for the truth when it counts.
I began thinking seriously about this in August when I was told about an alleged cover-up of the radiation spills from the Fukushima nuclear power station after the March 2011 tsunami. You hear a lot of these sorts of claims as a journalist and it’s part of the job to check them out.
It was suggested I should look at a website called Energy News at enenews.com.
It is one of those sites that gathers or ‘‘aggregates’’ news reports from mainstream news services, including the BBC and Reuters.
Energy News appeared soon after the tsunami and has a substantial database of news reports, videos and academic studies, all devoted to nuclear issues and most related to problems at Fukushima.
A few weeks after I began looking at the site, the Japanese admitted things were worse than they had previously indicated, which seemed to reinforce the website’s credibility.
But Energy News has been painting such an alarming picture of the Fukushima situation that researchers from the University of California’s nuclear energy department – who apparently disputed its take on the risks from the sticken plant – tried to find out who was behind it.
After more than two years of work, they were forced to admit recently that: ‘‘The short answer is, we don’t know.’’
The Berkeley gang say the site has no ‘‘about page, no mention of its authors, contact info or its sources of funding’’. All they could find was its registration to an organisation called DomainSecrecy.net and the address of its ‘‘host provider’’ in Providence, Utah.
Discussion threads on the Berkeley forum have the usual robust stuff you find in online chat rooms, with opinion retreating to the extremes of belief or disbelief with plenty of personal abuse thrown in. Similar patterns dominate the Energy News comments sections, with a battle between those convinced of a nuclear cover-up and those who roll their eyes at such gullibility.
To me, it’s not whether the site is right, wrong, or half right and half wrong. It’s the threat to objectivity, accuracy and legitimacy that comes from producing permanent printed news and opinions.
I made a mistake on this page last week – I gave someone the wrong job, and we corrected it the next day. But online copy can be changed – corrected or manipulated – very easily.
A column I wrote on UFOs a few weeks back is now on dozens – perhaps hundreds – of UFO websites. Have they changed anything I wrote?
I don’t know. And I am not complaining. The local is indeed now the global.
But if print eventually loses its place to the online medium, how will we know who to trust? Will it be the information age, or the disinformation age?