EMAIL     |    MY CV     |    HOME

Reinventing Credibility

By Brooke Shelby Biggs
TechWeb, May 1998

Perhaps the biggest challenge in new media today is establishing credibility. The old art form -- journalism -- in a new medium -- the Net -- has to start from scratch to establish its reputation as a reliable and mostly accurate vehicle for the truth.

The challenge is made even more difficult by the fact that the medium itself is the subject of so much of the news online. We're often covering ourselves, or covering issues and companies with which we may have extremely complicated relationships.

In my last column, I lambasted Microsoft's transparent attempt to trick the news media into running faked pro-Microsoft testimonials to manipulate public opinion about the legally embattled software Goliath. I noted in that column the covert campaign was made doubly dangerous by the fact Microsoft fancies itself a media company and controls or owns interests in news outlets such as Slate and MSNBC.

I quickly received a lesson about throwing stones from within glass houses.

Mail poured in, pointing out that in my bio at the foot of the column, it is noted I host a conference on Netscape's NetCenter. That relationship certainly calls into question my motivations for writing an anti-Microsoft piece. After all, I work for one of Microsoft's chief enemies. At least some of my income depends on Netscape's well-being.

I could say my moonlighting gig with Netscape really didn't enter my thoughts as I wrote that column, but why should anyone believe me? (I did note to some readers who sent mail that the column ran for several days under a banner ad for Microsoft Office 98. Turns out, Microsoft pays some of my rent too.) But it's my responsibility as a journalist to remain above the fray, above the appearance of any conflict of interest in my coverage of the industry.

Problem is, that's next to impossible to do. Microsoft isn't the only company positioning itself as a media company. Yahoo and Netscape have also jumped on the content bandwagon. This means when I write about any of those companies, I'm writing about a competitor. How can I ever be objective about anything?

According to a friend who works for Microsoft, journalists who work there are forbidden by a non-compete clause in their contracts from freelancing for any outside publications. That's not something new; the traditional press has had a similar attitude for decades, preventing reporters from moonlighting for competing newspapers. But they could, perhaps, do side work in a local factory -- as long as the company they worked for wasn't one they covered on their beats.

But because Microsoft is so massive and so diversified, and because it sees itself as a player in almost every market, there really aren't many industries in which it doesn't compete. So there aren't many beats that don't, in some way, cover Microsoft or one of its competitors. Don't believe me? Try to find one section in your nearest major daily newspaper where Microsoft has not been covered in the past 12 months. Besides the front page, business, and technology sections, you could find them in entertainment (video games, interactive television, MSNBC), sports (video games, online sports news), travel (online travel guides, Mungo Park), and automotive (CarPoint, Car Talk on MSN).

Lewis Perdue, a veteran journalist and an activist for ethics in Web media, says the key to credibility is to divulge all sources of money that make a given piece of content possible. That way, readers can decide for themselves how much they can trust the content. In theory, it's a simple fix to what has become a big problem for online publishers. But it gets hairy when a given commercial content site, such as this one for example, has business relationships (be they sponsorships, advertising, or equity investments) with several dozen companies.

The San Jose Mercury News' technology columnist Dan Gillmor, recently discovered the slippery nature of the problem when he was writing a column last week about the formation of an industry interest group called ProComp. ProComp is a lobbying group representing Microsoft's main competitors, such as Sun Microsystems and Netscape, and its frontmen are former Senator Bob Dole and Judge Robert Bork. Gillmor wanted to write about the significance of Bork's presence in a group pressing for anti-trust enforcement against Microsoft, since Bork has long been known to believe current anti-trust laws should almost never be enforced, except in extremely egregious circumstances.

But Gillmor discovered that Knight-Ridder New Media, the parent company of Mercury Center, had endorsed ProComp. Bob Ingle, Knight-Ridder's new media chief, has been feuding with Bill Gates since 1996, when Gates denied he was actively wooing good reporters and editors away from newspapers to work on the Sidewalk project. Ingle has said that isn't the reason he endorsed ProComp, but he did so because he disapproves of Microsoft's tactics in the software industry.

Since when does a newspaper company choose sides in business issues between companies in entirely different industries? Since the lines dividing one industry from another have blurred beyond distinction.

I doubt the Detroit Free Press will be issuing a browser anytime soon, or that CBS will debut its own operating system. Nonetheless, online media will have to acclimate itself quickly to the new rules of the game, and be sure to keep vigilant about even the slightest changes in the competitive landscape. With more information out there for consumers, the successful media will need to be the ones who not only offer the most valuable context, but also who have the most honest reputations.