From couriers to telegrams, from radios to newspapers, from televisions to the Internet, people living in different ages always have their ways to get in touch with the outside world. With the development of more advanced technology, one thing is for sure that people can get to know more information with a faster pace. However, it is still skeptical whether those new means of fast-spreading sources are trustworthy. According to Stuart Allan (2006), ‘the realization that the ‘information superhighway is a two-way street', where journalists could expect to encounter the viewpoints of their readers on a regular basis, brought with it a growing awareness that traditional rules and conventions were being rapidly rewritten. Slowly but surely, the participants in what would prove to be a lively, and frequently acrimonious, debate over whether ‘real journalism' could take place in cyberspace were taking up their places.'
l The Emergence of ONLINE NEWS
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This year marks the 40th birthday of the Internet, while information technology has been greatly changed people's life. We can not deny the fact that what a big challenge this new media form brings to the traditional media model. ‘For many online journalists today, the Oklahoma City bombing of 19 April 1995 continues to be regarded as a tipping point of sorts, namely the moment when the potential of news sites for providing breaking news became readily apparent to advocates and critics alike within journalism's inner circles' (Allan. S, 2006:15). To some extent, the nature of fast and wide spreading does influence and question the production of mainstream media. People gradually find an alternative way to receive messages only in a more efficient tunnel. Tracing back to 4 November 1997, it was the official day of the launch of BBC News Online service. ‘BBC News Online represented a significant initiative within the Corporation's strategy to reaffirm its public service ethos in a multi-channel universe, and thereby be better placed to challenge commercial rivals such as CNN, MSNBC, EuroNews, and News Corp' (ibid:34). As one of the world's largest news-gathering organizations, its web-based news broadcasting announced the early rise of online news system.
l Features of ONLINE NEWS
Jason Seiken, editor at the time of washingtonpost.com, ‘when asked whether he could anticipate a future where online news would be better placed to cover breaking news than traditional news organizations, he replied: ‘As the web becomes really interwoven into the fabric of more and more people's lives, it's just common sense that that's going to happen.' (cited in Allan. S, 2006:25). This is only one saying from one scholar's perspective. It is still too early to decide whether online news will finally take over the traditional news system. However, I do understand why Seiken here may make such a prediction because of the impressive features of online news, compared with the traditional ones.
Immediacy attributes to one of the three important characteristics of online news. It allows people to know the news once after the in-the-site “journalists” upload the breaking news. Well-known cases like the London bombings and hurricane Katrina. In no time did the reports appear on the World Wide Web to catch readers' attention on the spotlight. The second key feature is ‘the capacity for greater depth in online reporting' (Allan. S, 2006:25). Usually the traditional media reports tell one story once a time in the daily newspaper due to the limitation of the length of each article. They can not always give us an in-depth report from different perspectives. However, the Internet provides us an overwhelming platform to put forward news stories personally in different view points. Especially in those information blocked countries, the use of online news can intensely meet the public interest in some stories, which they can't find further resources in the traditional media. A third identified feature is online news is more interactive. They often leave readers a space for comments. News online is not purely a top-down process, they also need to hear from their target audiences. They would like to listen to the reflection from the information receivers, which could better improve their way of reporting and better meet the needs of readers. At the same time, this process makes people online have a comprehensive understanding of the news.
Always on Time
Marked to Standard
From the book “Making Online News”, editor David Domingo (2008) also puts forward his analysis of benefits and weakness of online news. Firsthand data, directly witness actions, insiders' point of view and comprehensive description of the news are all listed in the benefits part. On the other hand, we can find the weakness lies in the difficulty to set down everything that you witness, misuse a confession and inappropriate self-reflection or prejudices. Here the author provides us a comprehensive view of how online news features. If we take those great benefits into consideration, we still need to admit that online news is in the predominant position in news reporting in today's digital media century.
l Online News vs. Mainstream News
Ever since people use news items to communicate and acquire certain information, the traditional broadcasting service has been long accused of being gatekept. ‘As its most basic, gatekeeping simply refers to a regime of control over what content is allowed to emerge from the process in print and broadcast media; the controllers (journalists, editors, owners) of these media, in other words, control the gates through which content is released to their audiences' (Bruns. A, 2005:11). In contrast, many believe that online news provide them a free platform to know more about what has been hidden behind the scene. It is true that online news develops in an open atmosphere. Every legal citizen seems to have the equal opportunity to become a ‘journalist' to put forward news stories. The coverage of online news is definitely richer than the mainstream news where some worthless news would be abandoned at first sight. People are given the chance to get in touch with more news from different perspectives. Compared to the mainstream news, immediacy might be another advantage. News items will always be instantly uploaded through a computer and a cable, regardless of the complicated print and delivery processes. ‘For those in the newspaper industry, it was becoming increasingly obvious that they would not be able to compete with their electronic rival where breaking news was concerned' (Allan. S, 2006:21). However, it is not the fact that people can totally trust online news due to its two merits. There are still some gatekeepers to supervise the information at the backstage and subjectively guide their readers to think in a particular way. According to Axel Bruns (2005), ‘the new online “gatekeeper” (if we stick with that term for now—we will soon see that it is no longer fully accurate) might call themselves “editors”, “moderators” or “information guides”, but to some extent they perform traditional gatekeeper duties (sic) of selecting the material supposedly of greatest interest of their specific audience. Frequently, therefore, they are limiting themselves to a particular field of information, and provide structured overviews over major topics and developments in a field, in the form of subject guides, subject directories or resource centers.' As a result, people can't even believe online news although it allows us to know more.
In this upcoming essay, I will mainly argue that it is true online news allows us to know more but trust less. The essay will be illustrated with two case studies to explain we trust online news less in two aspects, namely the news itself and the nation-state. I'll also try to explore the potential reasons for this phenomenon. Finally, I will look into the major concern about the main argument in my essay. A comprehensive summary may help me to conclude this critised article.
ONLINE NEWS, OFF FACT—Tibet case in China
With the rapid development of information technology, people nowadays gradually get rid of the habit of subscribing newspapers to grab worldwide information. Turing on the screen and clicking some buttons, they can easily get involved in millions of news items in the various websites. This change allows people to be active information searchers rather than passive information receivers. However, it is increasingly argued that sometimes those online news are untruthful. From street gossip to the rumors of celebrities in the entertainment area, people are getting used to accept the fables. But sometimes the same joke will be made on political issues. Tibet issue has always been a controversial topic both domestically and worldwide. According to the Chinese government, Tibet is an indivisible part of China no matter in the perspective of history or geography. The whole country consists of 56 nations and Han-Chinese has the largest population. For a long time, no matter under who's leadership, Tibetans are seeking for independence from their motherland. In the early March this year, a malicious turmoil took place in ABA prefecture, Xizang autonomous region. A group of ruffians attacked shopping malls and even government offices. The riot brought about 18 residents dead and caused direct economic lose of 2.5 billion RMB. Those rioters shouted “Tibet Independence” or “Long Live the Dalai Lama” and severely obstructed people's normal life (Sina, 2009). However, some online journalists made distorted comments on this issue. The American media giant, CNN took the leadership of a serious of misleading reports. There was one photo shot during the unrest saying that one mobster was taken away by the police. The same sort of reports could be found almost at every websites during that period of time, as well as on BBC News Online. In their stories, they focused more on how Tibetans were gotten quelled and highlighted the process of so-called military suppress. However, the truth is those minority freedom-seeking Tibetans first started the riot and caused unmerciful movement. Trying not to be over-patriotism, I am not going to judge whether it is their right to promote this kind of campaign. After all, their action should be undergone in a comparatively peaceful way. A trustworthy and justified piece of news, in my humble opinion, should at least criticize the inappropriate protest rather than making stories in their own thinking. Looking back to the description of that photo, BBC News Online in no time changed their illustration due to the truth is that a Han-Chinese was rescued by the police. Actually at first, even if they can't read the Chinese characters, the big Red Cross on the ambulance has already indicated that was a rescuing process.
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As we can see, online news does provide people a platform to know more about the world. At the same time, online news itself, to some extent, often fails to tell the truth and misleads their readers to think in a wrong direction.
Disclosed Truth, Beyond Government
Tracing back to the year 2007, a drama about a photograph of South China tiger caused a great sensation nationwide. A farmer, named Zhou Zhenglong, claimed that he took a photo about South China tiger, which hasn't yet been found for more than 24 years, in a bunch of jungle in China's Shaanxi province. The American “Science” magazine also gave it a first-handed report. Most of the mainstream news reports believed that the photo was true and highly remarked the brave action of Zhou. In no time did Zhou change from a farmer to a risky photography legend. He received 20,000 RMB as reward and the small county was again raised to be a popular travel spot. However, it is because the case is so astonishing that led to a hot discussion throughout the whole Internet. The mostly viewed online news at that period of time was the reports about the suspicion of the truth of that tiger photo. Following the news reports online, a series of further discussion and studies came by. Some netizens began to doubt it might be a photo skillfully dealt with by the Photoshop software. In contrast, in order to prove the truthfulness of that photo, the local government also stood out to support the positive reports, stating it's a rare chance that we can successfully take a photo of South China tiger. We have already invited some experts to examine the photo and it's not been magically modified by Photoshop. And all the photos spread online is reprinted, that's why it looks like a fake tiger. (People.com, 2007) However, those online reporters would not so easily give up finding out the fact. They then send these photos to some other authorities. After carefully analyzing the colors and the surrounding environment, the authority put forward a bold hypothesis, which indicated the tiger in that photo was actually a “paper tiger”. Quickly the newly-released information was spreading all over the networks. Zhou and the photo itself got severe questioned this time. Since too many voices are around the Internet and it raised nationwide discussion, the officials can't sit still waiting for the horrible results. They were actually pushed to take actions and the police started to investigate the case. After some further and in-depth investigations, Zhou finally admitted his deceit in order to swindle the rewards. The so-called precious tiger photo is actually a tiger poster. He deliberately put the picture into the woods and took that photo.
Although the fact has already been exposed, we may still have a question that how a farmer can successfully cheat the whole nation and even gets highly praised at the beginning of the case. As the investigation moved forward, a bigger scandal was found out. According to Zhou's confession, when he presented the photo to the officials in the local Forestry Administration, the staffs checked it for more than 15 minutes and finally decided to expose to the public. After that, all the other processes were dealt with by the local Forestry Administration office, including arranged him to several news conferences and received interviews from hundreds of journalists. Up till now, we may have a clearer idea that the whole story is actually directed and played by the local officials. Zhou himself can't receive such a higher reputation without the help of the local government. Ultimately on 17th November 2007, Zhou was sentenced to jail for two and half years and forced to return all the rewards. Meanwhile, 13 relevant officials got punished and 2 vice presidents of Shaanxi Forestry Administration were dismissed from the office. (Xinhuanet.com, 2008) From the above case, we can find that online news has its own unique influence on the public opinion. Their reports towards this issue are beyond the control of the local government. Consequently, those greedy officials ate the bitter fruits themselves.
With the time passing by, more and more untapped truths have been exposed to the public through the online news. Such case recently like the high leaders in Chinese football Association getting involved in the scandal of gambling and unfair judgment also gives those officials a heavy strike at their backs. It is online news gives us a chance to figure out the real situation of the existence government authorities. It is online news makes ordinary audiences to reconsider how many hidden secrets have their leading governments kept. To some degree, the more online news people read, the more dark sides would be exposed. The more negative information people receive, the less convincing the government might be.
Potential Reasons for This Phenomenon
Personally, I truly believe that things happen in coordinate with certain reasons. Since the Internet has so many advantages, people are easily tended to believe the merits of events happened online. However, every coin has two sides. As we find out those online news items are not truly remarkable, I'd like to probe into the possible reasons for this phenomenon in three aspects in the following section.
l The Rise of Citizen Journalism
‘In the West it is sometimes said that anyone can be a journalist online, hence further blurring the distinction between reliable, objective information offered by a professional and the subjective and sensationalist by the blogging citizen journalist' (Johan, 2008:131). Due to the open and free environment of the Internet, online news contributors are often less professional and work as volunteers. Stuart Allan (2006) has the idea about this new media form stating that ‘this invitation to ‘be the media', and thereby to challenge traditional definitions of what counted as ‘news' as well as who qualified to be a ‘journalist', was answered in surprising ways across the breadth of the internet's virtual communities.' The stories they write might be an accident they come across when they are on their way to work. Someone may argue that this kind of eye-witnessed reporting is the key advantage of citizen journalism. However, when the editor writes his stories, he is often tended to attach more about his own feeling towards the certain issue. They may also post the so-called news even if it is just a gossip they hear from others. ‘This type of ‘citizen journalism', to use the phrase suddenly appearing in mainstream news items, was being supplemented by other forms of reporting similarly made possible by digital media. At the forefront were weblogs, or blogs, where individuals gathered whatever material they could and posted it, along with their own interpretation of its significance' (Allan. S, 2006:7). At this point of view, the resources they got are firstly untruthful. That's why Johan (2008) may argue that ‘traditional journalists often regard online journalism as not-so-serious journalism.' Because the Internet is an open gateway, there is less limitations and restrictions to speeches. Some non-sense and fake stories are naturally emerged. Although many arguments highlight the advantages of citizen journalism, in this sense, it also encourages amateur “journalists” to treat news stories unseriouly.
On the other hand of the rise of the citizen journalism, as we find in our second case study, it provides the “journalists” a great opportunity to bravely express their ideas and intensively arise public attention. Somehow, this kind of news reports can really bring their audiences a thorough understanding of the undergoing events and influence some governmental decisions. ‘The closed nature of the mainstream media similarly creates mistrust as reports are frequently suspected of hiding political or commercial agendas on part of the news organization itself or of individual commentators, and as exclusion from the publishing process limits the audience's ability to respond—and again, some users have begun to rely solely on the news provided by alternative, collaboratively prodused sources' (Bruns. A, 2005:215). As a result, the rise of citizen journalism in this way meets people's curiosity towards often “saint” governmental issues and hopefully changes some inappropriate existent official situation.
l Fast ≠ Accuracy
Online news leaves us the image of fast-spreading and time-saving. ‘Less than ten minutes after the first passenger jet struck the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11 2001, eyewitness accounts began to appear on the web' (Allan. S, 2006:53). Every news agency wants to be the first in the rally of news reporting. As a result, fast reporting seems to be the predominant task among journalist online and off-lines. However, there is an English saying, “Haste makes waste”, which indicates that sometimes rapid decisions can't make things perfect. Recently there is one piece of news online stating that some drinks form China's Nongfu Spring company and Uni-president include overweighed arsenic. It is really a huge piece of breaking news especially for the customers living in such a healthy-cared era. In no time did the sales volume reduce by nearly 50%. The two companies are confronted with the direct economic loss about one billion RMB. (ifeng.com, 2009) However, after the quick exposure of the scandal, the local Administration for Industry and Commerce started to investigate the case. More surprisingly, the final results for the drinks from those two well renowned national companies are fine for consuming. The amount of arsenic actually reaches the standard of average level. Standing away from the case itself, no matter for what kind of news reports, if we can clarify the truth first and then release it, there won't be such kind of rumors around our society and unnecessarily cause the panic of the public. When online news is competing with their traditional counterparts, fast accessibility to the information might become its top priority. However, sometimes immediacy can mis-tell the stories and block itself from the truth. That's why I think fast may be another reason for the inaccuracy of online news.
l Sophisticated Netizens
According to CNNIC (2009), ‘…by the end of 2008, the Internet penetration rate of 22.6% in China had surpassed the global average level of 21.9% for the first time. Meanwhile, the amount of Internet users in China had reached 298 million, with 279 million broadband users.' People online have more experience in judging the information themselves. Meanwhile, ‘the news moves from being mostly journalist-centered, communicated as a monologue, and primarily local, to also being increasingly audience-centered part of multiple conversations and micro-local' (Bruns. A, 2005:55). Usually you can find some places for comments at the bottom of online news items. These spaces give readers a chance to reflect their ideas right up to the top. Netizens nowadays are mature enough to view the news according to their own social value. Since the Internet let them to express their thoughts freely, people are no longer easily to be driven to believe or listen to some certain news like in a propaganda way. Extended our second case study in exposing the truth of that “paper tiger”, three netizens were awarded as the 2008 yearly “Premium Law Figure”. The congratulatory address went as the following, “they three perfectly combine the law spirit and the high technology of the Internet. The fair truth goes beyond time and space. They join hands together to prove the fact and unveil the ill-favored conspiracy. Their victories spread through the network and let us share the success in real life society.” (People.com, 2008) Due to some honest online journalists, we are lucky to get to know the state secrets. This is also the key reason which may attribute to explain why online news leads to the less creditability of the government.
Major Concerns, Better Improvement
Throughout my main argument, it is obviously that we find some drawbacks of online news. Although we get to know more different news online and get an in-depth understanding of some current issues, these limitations still remind us to think that how we can offset the shortages and better improve the development of online news. First of all, we still need a guardian to look after the production of online news. People would like to hear more truthful news rather than those fake, made-up stories. The role of gatekeeper in the traditional news media should not be ignored at this moment. The only difference lies in the transformation form gatekeeping to gatewatching. According to Bruns, this is a process ‘of observing the many gates through which a steady stream of information passes from these sources, and of highlighting from this stream that information which is of most relevance to one's own personal interests or to the interests of one's wider community' (cited in Paterson. C & Domingo. D, 2008:177). By this practice, people have the wider access to the newsworthy websites and avoid of loosing in the multitude uncertainty of information. Secondly, it is a trend to combine the efforts of professional journalists and voluntary ones. Professional journalists are usually well-trained and know how to edit news reports in a routined way. It is true that our ordinary audiences prefer those reality-reflected reports. However, we do not expect to doubt or intentionally vilify the existent official authorities. Participatory journalists may significantly highlight the activism news reports which to a large degree undermine the power of government. If professional journalists can work with online amateur journalists, they can provide more or less tightly policed online discussion forum for readers. In the process of news reporting, we need the wide and open-minded citizen journalists as well as those justified and well-organized traditional journalists. Last but not the least, a comprehensive legislative system should be established. Currently in some online news websites, it is interesting for me to find that there is one statement at the very bottom of the online news reports. It says like “the above report is only personal view point. We can't guarantee the accuracy and completion of the whole text. Readers can rely on as a reference but check the factuality yourselves.” (ifeng.com) Somehow, if we can make this sort of notice into real regulations, it would then much better to oversee the production of online news. The law may need to cover ‘a nuanced understanding of what may constitute a news aggregator and news producer in the age of electronic media, as even bulletin board systems are required to adhere to what kinds of information they publish on a list. Thus …the law should be more specific and detailed about who may produce new online and how' (Johan, 2008:133). Under the strict execution of the ideal regulation, online news may develop towards a healthy and upgrade way.
In the above essay, I have mainly argued that it is true that online news allows us to know more but trust less. Two examples are also used to demonstrate in which way we trust online news less. News itself and the nation-state becomes the untrustable target during the discussion. Furthermore, I have also tried to explore the potential reasons for this phenomenon. My illustration lies in three aspects, namely the rise of citizen journalism, fast doesn't equal accuracy and the more sophisticated netizens. Hopefully, the above three influencers could explain the hidden possibilities. And a slight piece of concern is also mentioned to call people's attention how to better improve the service of online news. Online news should be used as a tool to let audiences to know more resources in a positive way. Although the mainstream media still take dominant leadership, we have to admit the up-growing power of the new media. Apart from the drawbacks of online news, it does give us an opportunity to acquire more resources. No matter through which way we get to know the news items, it is inevitable that we may find some false information. Online news, to a large extent, is still a good platform for people to get to know more about the globe so as not let themselves become speechless among their peers. However, the only thing we need to consider is to exert some restrictions on the production of online news and let it develop and boost in a comparatively harmonious social environment.