The death of news credibility

print and television as the main provider of news, with a seething disgust.

Today's CNN top story put me over the edge.

Here's the title and article summary for those of you without images in their feed readers:

6-year-olds forced into sex for food, group finds

A poor Haitian girl could get $2.80 and some chocolate, she told a European charity. All she had to do was perform a sex act on a humanitarian worker. She refused. Her impoverished friends did not. Her story is one of many in a report titled "No One To Turn To" -- which chronicles allegations of charity and U.N. workers abusing children.

But if you read the actual article you see not a story about a 6-year-old being raped (it's a mere footnote in the article), but the following:

In the report, "No One To Turn To" a 15-year-old girl from Haiti told researchers: "My friends and I were walking by the National Palace one evening when we encountered a couple of humanitarian men. The men called us over and showed us their penises.

"They offered us 100 Haitian gourdes ($2.80) and some chocolate if we would suck them. I said, 'No,' but some of the girls did it and got the money."

This bait-and-switch is so misrepresentative as to be grotesque. The story changes from "Humanitarian workers pay teenagers for sex" to the more sensationalist "6-year-olds forced into sex for food."

The biggest problem with news being disseminated online is that there is no geographic isolation (as is the case with both print and tv), which means that every local news network is in competition with every other news site on the planet. Ratings are driven by attracting as large an audience as possible... and most people care more about Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's married life than how many people vanished from a Darfur town this week (hint: all 30,000).

Blue = Angelina Jolie, Red = Darfur.

Newspapers can't help but take notice.

Accurate facts used to be the hallmark of professionalism in newspapers. Editors would strive for it. Now even the most respected newspapers on the planet are feeling the creep of ratings greed and with it, an end to an era of accurate, informative news.

I'm not the first to make this complaint and I have no connection to the journalism world except for some past memories of running my university newspaper. More important people than I have used larger podiums to disseminate the same message (and gotten flak for it).

I understand newspapers are a business to run and profits are driven by advertising. I also understand that newspapers are the fourth estate, keeping world governments in check through the power of disseminating information. With every sensationalist article they run, every inaccurate headline, every news story that breaks the papers' traditional format because of a previous story's high Digg count: they are relinquishing that power in the name of profit. There has to be a balance.

As maddening as watching reputable brands peddle sensationalism might be, I actually have a bigger worry: Newspapers are clearly noticing how much Digg traffic certain articles are receiving; a fact that is certain to play a role in influencing the editorial direction of future stories (or at least their headlines).

I predict a future in which USAToday announces America's next president with the formulaic made-for-Digg headline, "The #1 Most Elected President Ever, in the 2008 Election."]]