"Peter, you've lost the news!"

A new media study by researchers at the University of Maryland brings to mind spoof news show The Day Today, in which Chris Morris’ news anchor shouted at his hapless field reporter Peter O’Hanra-Hanrahan for letting a Minister walk away from him in a live interview rather than answer a crucial question. O’Hanra-Hanrahan let the news “get away” and had to say sorry. The Maryland study indicates that RSS feeds from major news sites such as the New York Times or Guardian don’t actually provide all relevant news that’s on the site. If you checked site, or the newspaper, you’d get stories from wire organisations such as Associated Press (AP) and Reuters as well as the newspapers' own stories, but major news sites’ RSS feeds will only send you some content their journalists write themselves, and not even all of that. The study concludes that RSS feeds might alert you to breaking news, but readers should head to the news sites themselves if they want any detailed information.

Questions have long been raised about Lexisnexis, an archive service providing a database of newspaper stories. At first glance, it allows an apparently failsafe search for keywords in national and local newspapers going back many decades. It seems a brilliant tool for students and researchers. But colleagues have noticed that if you compare your search results for a newspaper edition in 1992 or 2004 with the actual physical newspaper on that day in 1992 or 2004, not all stories in the paper make it into Lexisnexis’ archive. So any studies based on a Lexisnexis search are in fact studies of content Lexisnexis staff has had time to digitise, not necessarily studies of what appeared in the newspapers when published. News has been lost.

If the invention of the train was also the invention of the train crash, as Paul Virilio has suggested, then is the invention of digital archives also the invention of digital data loss? Following his analysis of data transferral at the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, DC, Barry Mauer argued:

As our society transfers its archives from print and analog media to digital media, an unintended consequence results; we lose a great deal of data. The effects of this data loss are profound; without access to our data, we lose our history, and thus our ability to function in the present is diminished.

Perhaps. Certainly the Maryland study reminds us of the perils of complacently thinking we are receiving comprehensive and reliable news.