The risk is that journalists or analysts will gather incorrect or damaging information through the Internet, but will not be able to distinguish between trustworthy sources and other, less discriminating sources.
The question of who may be responsible for another's words was thrown into stark relief last month, when ITN decided to sue Two-Ten Communications over a press release that it distributed.
The release, issued by Living Marxism magazine, was posted on the UNS Newswire service, and contained allegations about ITN's coverage of the Bosnian conflict which ITN considered defamatory. The news organisation is also suing the magazine.
Two-Ten and other distributors can be held responsible for material they release under the Defamation Act of 1996, unless they can prove they 'took reasonable care in relation to its publication' and 'did not know, and had no reason to believe' that the distribution 'caused or contributed to the publication of a defamatory statement'.
Two-Ten was unable to report any progress in negotiations with ITN as PR Week went to press.
In the rest of the news distribution industry, reactions of disbelief at the ITN action are common. Most distribution agencies have established procedures for screening and attribution of information, which they do exercise. 'It is difficult, but we do screen out contentious issues', says Graeme Radcliffe, founder of IPMG Newsdesk, the Internet-based European IT press release distributor.
Despite Newsdesk's own careful screening policy, Radcliffe is concerned that the current level of disputes is nothing compared with the potential problems which could be unleashed through the Internet. The general lack of control over Web publishing represents a very significant risk.
The risk is that journalists or analysts will gather incorrect or damaging information through the Internet by a variety of means, but will not be able to distinguish between trustworthy sources and other, less discriminating, news sources. Possible sources include junk e-mail (which can be impossible to trace to its source, even with expert help), information collected by 'intelligent agents', and the large number of 'anti' sites where disgruntled customers publish negative information about companies.
'This is an important issue' says Radcliffe. 'We need to set down codes of conduct and provide guarantees about our sources. How else do you guarantee that the news on your network is real?'