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Using Google is not investigative journalism: 'the truth resides with people'

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Bob Woodward and others weigh in on a series of college papers that display what Woodward calls a "heart-stopping over-confidence" in the internet as a source of information.

Google Watergate
Google Watergate

Last week, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame delivered a brutal critique of young journalists' dependance on the internet. A high-level journalism class at Yale, they said, had asked its students to write a paper imagining "how Watergate would be covered now," and many students had essentially — Woodward said — written that "you would just use the internet and you’d go to 'Nixon's secret fund' and it would be there."

Few doubt that uncritical pro-internet pablum exists, but Woodward's quote seemed hard to swallow. Micah Sifry of TechPresident, however, asked Woodward for more details from the original papers, and they're not necessarily better. One student apparently wrote about a "tweeting frenzy" that would have brought down Nixon, and another said that the Watergate cover-up would not have lasted more than "a few days." As Sifry writes, Woodward told the professor that "to a person your students have a heart-stopping over-confidence in the quality of the information on the Internet." He then told Sifry, "There's nothing laughable about this. It's sad."

Jay Rosen of NYU, one of the first to express doubts about Woodward's quote, says he regrets his public questioning of it. Woodward, Rosen, and Sifry all agree that the internet, like a library, can make information easier to find. But real stories are found by contacting sources directly, not stopping at Google searches. And even in the internet age, there's no guarantee that suspicion and scandal will lead to political change. Like any tool, it's easy for the internet to become a crutch or "magic lantern" rather than a way to find and advance a new story.