Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Internet: It's Just Better.

A story at (here) describes a government study that will monitor websites and blogs for information about terrorist activity. An example given in the article is the Danish cartoons controversy.
"In this example, [Dr. Brian] Ulicny said, there might not be much of interest in the blog posting, yet the fact that the blogger called attention to this story can be significant to understanding what matters.

A good example, he said, is the recent furor in the Muslim world over the publication of cartoons of Mohammad in a Danish newspaper. The original publication wasn't much noticed in the West, but bloggers discussed this event that possibly contributed to riots worldwide.

'The fact that the web is a vast source of information is sometimes overlooked by military analysts," [Dr. Mieczyslaw] Kokar said. "Our research goal is to provide the warfighter with a kind of information radar to better understand the information battlespace.'"
The story is interesting in its own right and worth a read. Part of the story has some bearing on the recent COTS funding/no funding controversy and the way in which online journalism, such as blogs, uses hyperlinks.
"Within blogs, hyperlinks act like reference citations in research papers thereby allowing someone to discover the most important events bloggers are writing about in just the same way that one can discover the most important papers in a field by finding which ones are the most cited in research papers."
The superiority of blogs is in the use of hyperlinks. A blog or online article can point the reader to the reference material being discussed. There is no need to trust the writer's reporting as must be done with standard newspaper or magazine articles. Online journals that don't include hyperlinks to their source material are doing their readers a disservice. They are no better than old media who report the news and basically say, "trust us."

At the risk of beating an equine carcass, this brings us back to the COTS funding story that started the furor over whether NASA was reneging on its commitment to commercial flights to the ISS. The original story had no links to anything. (Here.) It made claims about reduced NASA funding without providing links to the NASA budget documents. It included a quote without context from Michael Griffin that suggested NASA was considering pushing back the date for COTS. There was no indication in the story why Griffin said what the story quotes him as saying: whether it was in response to a question about private capabilities rather than funding, part of a longer answer, or what. Moreover, there was no link to a transcript of Griffin's remarks or to a video. So the reader is left not knowing for sure what Griffin's quote means, other than what the article suggested it meant. That NASA is pushing back the date for COTS, cutting funding to the program, and the cuts will make it harder for the companies to perform.

But that's not the real problem with the story. The real problem is that the story relied on anonymous sources described as being "close to the companies" participating in COTS. There was no mention which company or whether it was several or all. There was not even a general description of the sources to establish the credibility of their claims. Were they officers of the companies? Outside consultants? Accountants? The janitors? Regardless, the anonymous sources apparently had a vested interest in continued COTS funding.

It's really beyond time for mainstream media to provide verifiable backup information within their stories, when possible. Even print media could do it by listing online links for more data at the end of articles. There's little excuse for online journals to publish stories without providing their readers with links to more information. It's not that hard to do. Lawyers do it all the time. We have to provide cites to authority or to the factual record to support everything we present to a court. There's no reason in this modern era of networked communication and data that journalists shouldn't be expected to do the same thing.*


* Of course another thing lawyers learn is that rules sometimes must be broken or bent because they don't cover every situation. So there may be times when stories have to rely on anonymous sources or not provide links to supporting data. But the presumption should be in favor of using identified sources and providing raw data and there should be a pretty good reason for doing otherwise.

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