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banner Sunday, 29 October, 2000, 11:56 GMT
Internet shaping journalism
internet search
The internet is changing journalism
By Tom Carver

There was a moment when I was searching the internet on an unreliable pay phone at San Francisco airport to try to find whether gas stations in Houston use "vapor recovery nozzles" or not that I began to wonder who on earth had dreamt up this barmy idea.

But at least Drew Hammond liked it.

He e-mailed from America to thank us for what he called "one of the most creative and engaging reporting tactics in many a year".

The aim was to spend five days criss-crossing America answering viewers┐ queries about the presidential election.

Many of the questions were the kind we journalists were already asking, such as: "Which way will soccer mums vote? Soccer mums is a pollsters┐ term for a key category of swing voters.

Others revealed interesting non-American perspectives.

For instance, we had several e-mails from Europe wanting to know about the other parties in the race besides the Democrats and Republicans, an area invariably ignored by the American media.

Ralph Nader
Europeans were interested in third-party candidates
From the e-mails we received in advance, we chose five themes: Low voter turnout; online voting; the Green Party; the swing vote; and "Who is George Bush?".

We went from Washington to Florida to Texas to California to Chicago in search of answers, covering 6,534 miles in five days - at times I felt like The Fugitive, endlessly on the run from one place to another!

At each stop we put the viewers' questions to guests on a live webcast.

This in turn generated more e-mails, until by the end it felt as if we had the beginnings of a genuine three-way live dialogue between us, the viewers and the American electorate.

Ability to interact

This is what makes the internet such an extraordinary medium - the ability to interact instantaneously with people from all over the world in both print and on video.

Do I think it will change my role as a journalist?

Not immediately, but in the long run, definitely.

At the moment, most people are more accustomed to the passive format of radio and TV and don't know how to interact. But they are learning fast.

Genuinely two-way

Journalists can receive viewers' questions any time, anywhere
As the internet moves into the next stage of broadband and wireless, it is going to turn TV into a genuine two-way medium.

Journalists will be able to read e-mails off their wireless phones as they come in, live on air from almost any spot in the planet.

The videophone - a concept that seemed like science fiction five years ago - will become more robust and versatile and, as more people get high-speed internet access, the viewing figures of webcasts will grow.

Do I think it's a good development? Absolutely.

Internet equals engaged

If people are interacting, it means they are engaged, and that must be healthy for society and democracy.

It also keeps media organisations like us on our toes and gives us a better sense of who we are broadcasting to.

Just seeing a name and a town on the e-mails made me feel connected to my audience.

They were no longer an anonymous mass but a collection of individuals.

We had e-mails from as far afield as Botswana, Belgium, Ghana, France, Canada and Germany, all united by a desire to know more about the American election.

This has been called "user-controlled journalism", but I hope it isn't that.

Editorial expertise

The BBC's value lies in its editorial expertise. That is what we are paid to do as journalists, to follow what we think are the stories of significance.

Thus we chose which e-mails to read out, which to follow up.

The digital divide separates those who know from those who don't
Interaction should not mean surrendering control of the process.

Viewers told us what they wanted to know about, but we still had to meet the needs of the many who didn't email us but were nonetheless following the website.

For there is a very real risk that the world will be divided between those with the confidence and the eloquence to speak out and those who remain silent and unheard.

Education is the key

It is not a question of laziness but education.

The digital divide is not between those with access to the internet and those without, but between those who have the learning to know how to use this extraordinary tool and those who do not.

The internet's trailblazers are beginning to realise that without a well-educated populace, the internet will never be used to its full potential.

In the meantime, I still haven't managed to find the answer to Steve Ferrero's question about vapor recovery nozzles and their environmental benefits for Houston.

If anyone knows, perhaps they could e-mail me.

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