Is it true?
There’s no more important question to ask yourself
when you’re online. Truth telling has never been
a requirement to provide information online. Standards
for 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 most unreliable. 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, in turn, are generally more reliable
than discussion groups, having more permanence, so more
care goes into creating the information on them.
One reality of the online world is that anybody can play
expert, and many do. You frequently see, for instance,
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.
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 employing completely different standards
than weekly newsmagazines. I’ve personally worked,
either as an employee or 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 either 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 they at times
freely write in negative terms about their own industry—about
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 along with
how to find people who know what you don’t and what
questions to ask them.
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 my 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.
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
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated
columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About
the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at