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'Net's a good source, but nothing beats first-hand info

July 11, 2004|by LINDA DUFFIELD

Aaah, the Internet. If you work at a newspaper, it can be a great tool.

Need to check a date from World War II or just have to know when The Beatles made their first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show"?

Go to the Internet.

Want to find the spelling of a town you never heard of, or find out if such a town even exists or where it's located? Go to the Internet.

Gotta know how to spell the rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd? Again, the Internet can be just the ticket.

With a little help from Google, it's a fast, efficient way to find out whether certain types of information in a story filed for publication are correct. You don't have to get out of your chair to check an encyclopedia, you don't have to skim through a phone book.

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But reporters and editors, like other Internet users, must beware. There are dangers involved in checking information on the Web.

Anyone who has ever Googled for something knows that chances are, you'll get a whole bunch of hits, and not all of them are authoritative.

Take Lynyrd Skynyrd, an example I'll use because on a recent night, the band turned up in a story. And of course, we had to check the spelling.

Keyword by the title of a song and you can find such spellings for the band name as Lynard Skinner, Leonard Skinner and Lynnerd Skynnerd. Good grief.

Or you can keyword a specific town and get more hits than you can shake a mouse at. If you peruse those sites, you might find three different spellings for the town and various forms of capitalization.

Placing too much trust in the Web can be dangerous for reporters and editors because if we trust the wrong site, incorrect information can make it into the paper.

It's not unusual for us to use Web sites to gather information such as backgrounds on companies, yesterday's weather, lottery information and the like.

There's nothing wrong with that. In those cases, we know the information gathered came from appropriate sites, such as the official Web site of the company in question or that of a local weather observer or the Maryland Lottery Commission.

If the Internet is a way to access reference material, e-mail can be a means of getting through to people we can't otherwise reach.

At The Herald-Mail, reporters are asked to limit the use of e-mail information they use, resorting to electronic messaging only when it's the only way a source can be reached or is willing to comment.

In those cases, reporters must take care, and be very sure the person being quoted is the person who sent the e-mail. We all know how tricky that can be. Spammers and viruses are both adept at forging the "From:" in e-mail.

When an e-mail has been used to obtain a comment, the reporter is expected to note that in the story.

As is the telephone, an e-mail can be a quick, easy way to get a quote. But it is not the way to conduct an interview except when absolutely necessary.

Nothing gets the job done as well as a face-to-face meeting with a source. Even the electronic age hasn't changed that.

Linda Duffield is managing editor of The Morning Herald. She may be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 7591, or by e-mail at lindad@herald-mail.com.

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