In March of 2007, stand-up comedian Sinbad had to refute his own death after Wikipedia claimed he had died. In interviews following the mix-up, Sinbad said that misunderstandings like this would be more commonplace with the Internet opening up more and more.
Craig Silverman, who releases a yearly greatest-hits book of false reporting called Regret the Error, claims that fact checking is America’s latest pastime for the Internet Age. Yet, web sites like Wikipedia are go-to “fact checking” sources of information for many people. Any time people question something and there’s a computer handy, Wikipedia is the top search result.
Not so long ago, people used encyclopedias, but nowadays you only find such book sets at garage sales. This is troubling since Wikipedia is a web site that users can self-edit rather than a book compiled by “experts”–meaning Joe Schmo can change the course of World War II with a few clicks of a mouse.
While self-editing offers the advantage of updating information faster rather than waiting for the next book series, it obviously has its obstacles.
In an age when the computer screen trumps actual print, it’s gotten tougher to determine factual reporting, especially when news has taken a focus off of facts and steered more toward commentary. Arianna Huffington’s blog The Huffington Post touts that it’s “breaking news and opinion.” Even news networks like CNN include Twitter updates at the bottom of their screen, from celebrity tweets to average joes who have something to sound off about.
It’s tough to know who’s giving us the facts and who’s just speculating.
Here are some tips on how to spot false reporting:
1. Who’s the boss? Look who’s behind the web site. If it’s a web site related to a prominent newspaper or periodical, then it’s probably at least attempting to report the truth. TV stations and university-related materials are also usually pretty reliable.
2. “A source close to. . .” This is an empty phrase never to be taken seriously, considering the source wouldn’t even go on record. It’s often used on E! news when Giuliana Rancic is speculating whether Brad and Angie are going to break up or not. It means nothing. In this example, it could be a neighbor who’s never actually spoken to the couple for all we know.
3. The more spam ads, the worse the web site. As someone who has done a lot of fact-checking, I can usually tell whether a web site looks credible or not. I tend to look at the ad space. The Chicago Tribune’s site has some airline deals and (at the time I’m writing this) an open letter from Toyota. Toyota, even with its recent troubles, is still a big company for a web site’s ad space, which means Toyota respects the Chicago Tribune’s readers enough to include them in an open apology.
4. Other sources align with it. If I am skeptical about a web site, I try to find other credible web sites that might link up with it. Even at the bottom of Wikipedia’s pages, there are sources linking to where the authors got their information (often times, it’s from journals and other scholarly sources).
5. Who are the authors? The web site Associated Content’s byline reads, “Associated Content has information on every topic. Submit your content and get paid.” If all it takes is signing up to become a reporter for a web site, then the web site is probably not the best source for that term paper.
6. Spelleng air-ors. I used to think finding a spelling error in a newspaper or magazine was like finding a four-leaf clover–a rarity. It didn’t necessarily mean the information wasn’t accurate; it just meant that something wasn’t caught.
However, there is a stigma with spelling errors, even in resumes and cover letters. I usually devalue something if it has a ton of mistakes, reporting on web sites included. Just like with anything else, you want to make an impression. Internet reporting is not making such an impression. I frequently turn to Entertainment Weekly‘s web site and find errors — and this is probably the leading entertainment magazine in the industry. If anything, spelling errors online are probably just a testament to how quickly reporters are attempting to get the news to us. Yet, for readers, it sometimes feels like a slap in the face.
Most, if not all, of these tips are common sense and what teachers and others have been telling us for years. Yet, the current blurred lines of reporting make it hard. When Ashton Kutcher has become our modern-day Walter Cronkite, news sources will never be the same.