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In Search of Truth, on the Internet

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Is it true?

There’s no more important question to ask yourself when you’re online. Truth telling has never been a requirement for providing information online. Standards for online accuracy, to a large extent, don’t exist.

As a general rule, the real-time communication that takes place in instant messaging sessions and chat rooms is the least reliable. One level up in terms of reliability are Usenet newsgroups, Web forums, and other discussion groups in which people have more time to ponder their posts. Web sites are generally more reliable than discussion groups because they have more permanence, so more care goes into compiling the information on them.

It’s a reality of the online world that anybody can play expert, and many do. For instance, you frequently see laypeople playing lawyer, offering legal opinions about complicated subjects and advising others what’s legal and what’s not, when it’s clear that all they’ve done is Googled to a statute or court case and don’t have a clue how to interpret its meaning or what its limitations are.

Gatekeepers as Truth Tellers

Even with those who don’t pose as experts, less fact-checking typically happens online because of the conversational nature of discussion groups and because the Internet operates without the gatekeepers of the traditional media, who require a certain level of expertise and professionalism.

Traditional print and electronic media outlets aren’t all bastions of accuracy and reliability, of course, with supermarket tabloids, for instance, employing completely different standards than weekly newsmagazines. I’ve personally worked, as either an employee or a freelance contributor, for a variety of traditional as well as new-media publications. Currently a freelancer, I’m being only mildly self-serving by saying that the highest standards I’ve seen up close are those of print publications.

It’s not that journalists are saints. It’s that they’re trained, by education or experience, to place truth above all else. Journalists in general aren’t necessarily pro-reader as much as they are pro-truth. They see telling the truth as their job. It’s the reason many got into journalism in the first place.

Journalists can be so avidly pro-truth that at times they write freely in negative terms about their own industry–about, for instance, circulation losses or breaches in journalistic ethics. This self-criticism, combined with a reluctance to self-aggrandize, isn’t selfless. It builds credibility and readership.

On the other hand, journalists aren’t necessarily experts. This includes computer columnists. I’ve personally felt like a charlatan sometimes when writing about a subject I had no personal experience with. But one truth about journalism is that what you need to know above all else is what you don’t know, plus how to find people who know what you don’t and what questions to ask them.

Skeptical Questions It Pays to Ask

As a reader, you should be skeptical, not cynical, about information you come across, regardless of whether its source is a traditional or new-media outlet. In asking yourself “Is it true?” also ask:

● Who’s behind the information? Different sources employ different levels of thoroughness in research and fact-checking and different levels of objectivity.

● Why is the person or organization presenting the information? Individuals and organizations often have agendas, sometimes explicit, sometimes hidden. Advocacy groups and individual companies, for instance, have different reasons for putting out information than news organizations and government agencies.

● Is the information paid for? Ads and advertorials, whether labeled or not, are inherently less credible than other information. When in doubt, send the site an e-mail message asking about its policies.

● Does the information diverge from your current understanding? If it diverges widely and may affect an important business, health, or family decision, try to verify the same information with at least two other sources. Your local librarian can be a valuable resource here.

● Is the information new or old? A lot of deadwood data is floating around in cyberspace at Web sites that haven’t been updated in several years. If the site doesn’t include a “Last updated” line or otherwise date its content, check out some of its links. If more than a couple are no longer working, the information at the site may no longer be up to date either.

Whether online or off, the byword is, and will likely always remain, caveat lector–let the reader beware.

Sites for Truth-Seekers

As you might expect, there’s lots of information on the Internet on how to determine the reliability of information on the Internet. Here are two good Web sites:

How to Judge the Reliability of Internet Information: www.mhhe.com/mayfieldpub/webtutor/judging.htm.

Evaluating Web Information: www.lib.vt.edu/research/evaluate/evaluating.html.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.

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