It was in the foyer of Coventry Cathedral in England, sampling bad coffee and good fruitcake after a Sunday morning service in 1977, that the minister was rude to me. "This is off the record, old chap ..."
I could have punched him, but as God was presumably watching, I didn't. Instead this off-duty cub reporter bit his tongue, and even at such an early stage in my career came to the conclusion that if journalism was going to be my lifelong chosen profession I would likely never be trusted by civilians.
Fast forward to today. I am middle-aged, bald, and sometimes curmudgeonly, but still the same idealistic, ink-stained wretch I was when I had hair back in 1977.
Nothing has changed about media ethics, but the playing field has broadened. There are so many more players. And some lurk in the shadows with evil intent.
The questions used to be: Can you trust what is printed in the newspaper? Now the better question is: Who can you believe on the Internet? Who can you trust?
The question came up at a regular lunch meeting of East Oregonian Publishing Co. editors as we discussed the pervasiveness of the Blogosphere. At the same time, our company is circulating a document about journalism practices and ethics that the news staffs at our eight Oregon and Washington newspapers have contributed to.
It has taken two years and is the product of Mike Forrester, one of the family owners, and Laura Sellers, our Astoria-based corporate staff member who seeks out new markets, with a special eye on the Internet. It is a solid piece of collaborative work that spells out paths to follow to ensure the most trust and credibility.
But not all media outlets do this. Bloggers certainly don't; their reality is inside their heads.
The Internet isn't a fad like break-dancing or eight-track players; it's here to stay. An entire generation is growing up thinking it is a "normal" place to seek accurate information. While newspapers like ours can claim loyal readers, in all age groups many people are turning to the Internet for their news. That's especially true of the younger set. I fear many approach the myriad sites without an appropriate level of skepticism.
My parents quiz me during my annual visits to England about my lifestyle in small-town America. Over the years I have told them about driveup banks ("you Yanks are so lazy"), giant beefsteaks ("... so greedy") and the amount of time we spend in the car ("your distances are so long"). Some years ago, I mentioned that I log on to the Internet about eight times a day; Mum and Dad were suitably amazed. On my last trip, I revised that estimate. Now it's about eight times an hour, as often on weekends as during work hours.
And what do I find there? I've teased often that the Internet really is just some fellow in Copenhagen in his pajamas making up stuff. Sounds silly, eh? Think about that for a minute. How do you know that it's not?
Anyone can set up a Web site and lure computer users with compelling content and eye-catching graphics.
Newspapers and other media reporters practice fact-checking techniques and employ a gatekeeper like me. Our jobs are to be professional skeptics. "Have you checked that?" "That doesn't sound right. Check it again."
But Bloggers simply write whatever comes into their head. There are no checks or balances, no gatekeepers. Often opinion, which differs from fact, isn't clearly labeled. My brother's barbed writing appears on three Web sites; he would rather die than have a single syllable edited by anyone before it is "published" for the world to read.
Some years ago, the Daily Astorian had some fun uncovering a spoof Web site that announced a nuclear power plant planned for the Columbia River near Astoria. It lingers in the memory. When researching the boxing match between Tonya Harding and Paula Jones back in 2002, I had a rude awakening amid the cyberfilth, discovering bogus Internet sites about both ladies that sounded more than halfway plausible.
So the message is clear: be skeptical of what you read, anywhere.
English-born journalist Patrick Webb is managing editor of The Daily Astorian, sister paper to the Chinook Observer. He and his wife live on the Peninsula.