THE BLOG
08/31/2010 03:05 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is Journalism Now in the Hands of Commenters?

If you, as a reader, want the best and most accurate news then there's one sure-fire way to get it. Go to your favorite news site and then scroll down and read the comments section after a story. This trick works for politics, celebrity gossip and even current events and there's a reason for it.

Due to perpetual staff cuts and the ever-present race to be first with a story, it appears that the "who, what, where, when and why" tenets of traditional journalism have been replaced with, "Just get something posted online now." This apparently leaves the burden of fact-checking and actual reporting to readers and good Samaritans in the comments section.

CNN graced us with a fantastic example when they ran the story, "Passengers removed from flight after 'comment' to crew member" on August 30th. This particular online article (at least as of 2:30PM) mentioned that nine unnamed people were kicked off of a flight to Tampa for an unknown reason for an as-of-yet undisclosed comment that was made to an unidentified crew member.

As a concerned reader who happens to live in Tampa and fly in and out of the local airport regularly, I found myself with a few questions. Were the nine people drunk sports fans, rowdy frat boys, scary terrorists or was it Octomom with her kids in tow? Was the comment something like, "We know how to blow up this plane?" or more along the lines of, "You look smokin' hot in that uniform?" And how do nine people make a/one/ün comment?

As CNN is fully aware and is oft to remind us, it's a post-911 world. Therefore it stands to reason that in a story that implies terrorism such as this one, the devil is in the details.

Enter the services of an anonymous commenter who reports:

TriStates - It was 9 nudists who complained about being told to strip before they could take their seats and they told the stewardess "You First"... I just saw it on Faux Knuz....

Several other people reported a similar variation in the comments section, though my (ill-advised) search for "Tampa nudists flight" could not confirm or deny the facts set forth by TriStates. I realize that CNN may not have known the who (identities of the nine passengers), the what (what was said) or the why (what was the reason they were removed?), but then at what point is it not a news story anymore and just a ploy for more clicks and views?

Another example was reported by Radar and US Weekly about Glee co-stars Mark Salling and Naya Rivera. The article states that Rivera, in an alleged fit of jealous rage against her alleged ex-boyfriend Salling, threw dog food on his Lexus.

The story is totally untrue, according to commenters.

Callie Urban -- She didn't. Us Magazine has as much credibility as the tabloids that talk about Batboy. Or go check Mark's twitter for yourself if you'd like to see it with your own two eyes.

The reports of the falseness are actually true (did you follow that?) according to Salling's Twitter as he tells fans that he doesn't even drive a Lexus. Okay, the dog food incident may be tough to confirm or deny, but can't someone at US Weekly run a quick make and model check on the guy's car??

Sure the Glee story sounds trivial compared to in-flight safety, but thousands of people just read something negative about Rivera, a young actress fresh in the national spotlight, and now may think less of her or be less likely to support her next project.

In politics, the commenters are not only called upon to clean up the facts of many a story (with helpful resource links), but often go one step further and lay the groundwork for the next story. After his recent victory in the Republican primary for the Florida Governor's race, Naples millionaire Rick Scott was featured in all of the major newspapers of the state. The commenters were less than kind, bringing up Scott's allegedly scandalous past and painting him as a "gift" to the Democrats. This coincidentally led to the next feature story by The Tampa Tribune, "Rick Scott: A gift to Democrats or their worst nightmare?"

And now with the sort of partisanship that one can only find in contentious political races, we uncover the real danger of the comments section. Comments are not, by nature, unbiased. How do we know that the items posted were not planted by one campaign or another? How easily could an Internet-savvy campaign shape or even control a news cycle?

People that make comments are under no obligation to be truthful or to post with integrity. Worse, the comments section can easily be gamed to by a special interest group, political party, celebrity PR agent or randomly bored teenager. Send twenty people to one article with the same messaging and -- voilà! -- a misrepresentation of public opinion is born.

So if journalists do not have the time or resources to verify a story and we as readers have no duty to keep the playing field neutral, what happens next? At what point are "traditional" online news outlets on par with ad-heavy opinion blogs? What do media companies need to do in order to maintain any sort of respect or readership? Is respectful reporting of news even necessary in order to grow readership or does it in fact hinder it?

This issue is more critical to media than the "to pay-wall or not to pay-wall" debate and deserves much more press than anything the Kardashians are up to. The answer could mean the difference between the necessary adaptation of journalism or the extinction of news as we know it.
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Shawna Vercher is CEO of VTi-Media and President of The Society of Successful Women. Join her in Tampa on October 8th for The SSW Leadership Conferencehttp://www.thessw.com as she and celebrity guests discuss the impact of media and public policy on today's women in business.