Let news figures comment further

Google News leads the way for local media

Dec. 29, 2007

by David Kopel

By copying a new idea from Google, the Colorado media could upgrade their credibility, accuracy and completeness. The idea: allowing further comments from people who have been quoted in a news story. Thus far, Google has done little to publicize its innovative program, but proactive Denver media could make themselves into industry leaders by adopting their own versions of the program.

Google is used for about 55 percent of Web searches in the United States. If you only want results that are news stories, you conduct the search via Google News (news.google.com). Last August, Google announced a new feature, called "Comments by People in the News." The feature attracted little attention until last Monday, when it was featured in a New York Times story.

Here's how the feature works: Let's say that you're the head of a local environmental group in Akron, Ohio, and you're quoted in a story in the Akron Beacon Journal. The reporter talked with you for 15 minutes and you had a lot to say. But, due to space considerations, the paper only printed two sentences of your quotes. You then contact Google News, and verify your identity, proving that you are indeed the person who was quoted in the Akron Beacon Journal. Google will then allow you to write an unedited comment, in which you can amplify or elaborate your ideas related to the published story.

Then, when the Google News search engine displays a link to the published story on the Akron Beacon Journal Web site, Google News will also display a link to your comment. So readers who want to know more about the environmental perspective on the issue can read the published article, and then read your comment.

On the Google News home page, there is a link for "Comments by People in the News," from which one can read all the comments offered by quoted persons, in reverse chronological order. Many of the comments are very useful, allowing the quoted person to share his expertise in much greater depth.

If you've been quoted in a news article and want to submit a comment to Google, go online to: www.google. com/support/news/bin/answer.py? answer=74123&topic=12285.

I suggest that Colorado newspapers and television stations begin a similar program for stories that are published on their Web sites. It is true that most media Web sites already have a general comments feature. But most of the general reader comments add little or nothing to the story; a response from a quoted person could easily be lost amidst the mass of useless or obnoxious reader comments on a controversial story. The comments from quoted persons should be set off from general comments, and should appear immediately below the article itself.

One advantage of a quoted-person comment feature is that it would allow for immediate correction of misquotes. Based on my experience as research director of the Independence Institute, I've seen the institute staff and myself quoted in thousands of media articles, and the good news is that misquotes are very rare. When they do happen, it is more likely because the journalist misheard or misunderstood, rather than because of bias.

Comments by quoted persons would mitigate a much more common and subtle type of bias. Suppose a reporter is doing a story on a gun-control issue. In a 14-paragraph story, he provides three paragraphs of neutral facts, and nine paragraphs in which the arguments of anti-gun advocates are expressed. Then, to provide nominal balance, the reporter interviews a pro-gun advocate who offers five distinct arguments against the gun-control proposal. The reporter picks the weakest of the five arguments, sums them up in two paragraphs, and then files a supposedly "balanced" article, in which both sides of the issue are represented.

Even when there is no bias, interviews usually have to be highly condensed. Newspapers have a finite amount of space for articles, and TV news broadcasts have to cover many topics in a fixed amount of time. So allowing additional comments from quoted persons would give readers who are interested in a topic the opportunity to learn more.

Local media have a significant advantage over Google in implementing comments from quoted persons. Google's staff does not live or report in Colorado. Accordingly, Google staff must spend time verifying the true identity of an e-mailer of a person who claims he was quoted in an article. In contrast, a reporter for a Colorado paper could as a matter of course give every interviewee a unique Web key which would allow the person to comment on a particular story, and which would expire 24 hours after the story is published. Because the comments would be unedited, additional staff work to manage the comments would be almost nil.

Providing better coverage for almost no marginal cost, a comments feature would benefit the media and their audiences.

 

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Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action. Please send comments to Independence Institute, 727 East 16th Ave., Colorado 80203. Phone 303-279-6536. (email) webmngr @ i2i.org

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