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Online Information Reliability

Kerry Eggers, a columnist for the Portland Tribune recently wrote: "I don't like blogs at all, and I'll tell you why. I don't think they have the integrity of a newspaper or a website. Bloggers don't necessarily have the credentials that a real accredited journalist has - some of them do but some of them don't - so you don't know what you're getting. Anyone can sit at home with their computer and write and consider themselves an expert while they are out there in the world having people read their stuff. They lack accountability and credibility as well. But people think they can throw anything out there in a blog, and they aren't accountable."  He continued, "It's a lot of opinion and that opinion is not backed by much fact."

This opinion, which isn't backed up by facts, is really repeated in various forms in many attacks against the "new media" by the "old media". Note that they don't present any facts when they make these attacks, they just express their opinion as if it were fact and expect to be believed. Many schools don't accept Wikipedia articles, because it isn't a "real encyclopedia". In point of fact, newspapers and magazines should lack credibility because they are so often careless and factually wrong. They do lack accountability. Much of what they present as fact is mere opinion.

The studies I've been able to find, that try and compare the reliability of print encyclopedias with online ones and Wikipedia, don't find much difference in reliability. I don't think any of those were done properly. Samples were small, and the experts knew the source of the articles. In properly conducted studies, neither the experts examining the accuracy, nor even the investigators interacting with them would know which articles came from which sources. But, the data supporting the old media bias seems to be completely lacking.

An excellent study was done by Scott R. Maier, an associate professor at the University of Oregon. He collected several thousand newspaper articles from 10 major U.S. metropolitan newspapers. He excluded sports stories, opinion pieces, columns and reviews then contacted key sources asking for feedback on errors. He found 2,615 factual errors in 1,220 stories. That's right, more than 2 errors per story. Almost half of the stories contained errors. Less than two percent of these errors were corrected, even when the errors were reported to the papers.

This study was also reported in Slate. There is even a website dedicated to reporting Media errors, http:⁄⁄www.regrettheerror.com⁄.

When it comes to accountability, it is obvious that neither the print media nor the television news media is careful about the facts and they seldom print retractions quickly and prominently. Frequently it is the bloggers who find the media errors and force corrections. Yet, sadly, old media stories are often accepted at face value.

In point of fact, there are careful writers and careless writers. There are those who strive to be fair and objective and those who are extremely slanted. To judge them by the media which carries the message, is foolish.

 

Advantages and Disadvantages

Some believe that the old media with editors and boards and written codes of ethics provide accountability. These same editors and boards push writers to sensationalize for better ratings, demand stories by deadlines and refuse to print retractions when they've made mistakes. There is no evidence I've found that this results in a net positive.

On the other hand, bloggers and other online media have a distinct advantage. They get rapid feedback regarding accuracy and quickly make changes accordingly. For example, at 11:44PM on July 17, 2008 Joe Freeman reported online in his Oregonian column that Jerryd Bayless made 34 free throws in his first three summer league games. 46 minutes later, dsx460 corrected him declaring he actually made 44 free throws. When I read the story at 9:00AM the next morning, it was corrected, along with Joe Freeman's thank you to dsx460 for finding the mistake.

There is no question in my mind, that these online stories, from responsible writers, are more accurate (at least a few hours after posting), than the print stories.

 

Judging Online Reliability

As with any other sources of information, it all depends on the character of the person doing the writing and their commitment to honesty and fairness. Most people judge their information sources on whether those sources agree with them. But, the character of the writer is really what is important. One question is, "How quickly and prominently are corrections made?"

I saw this at the end of an article I read in the morning from the NY Times online version, "An earlier version of this article misstated the rise in wholesale prices in July. It was 1.2 percent, not 1.8 percent, which was the increase in June." So, before 10AM they had corrected their morning edition of the paper so those reading online could read the correct information instead of the errors. Those who read the print edition, would probably continue thinking the mistaken information was correct.

Another factor to consider when using online information as a source, is how long will it be around? A Wikipedia article could completely change next week so if you reference a source, it could disappear.

Another factor is how reputable is the source? Is the source established? Do they try to be fair? Do they have a track record? One thing that might help you to understand how well known the source is, and whether it is respected, is Google's Link status. If, in the google searchbar you type link: you will be able to determine who links to the website you've specified. Clearly, if lots of people link to a site then it will have established at least its popularity. So for example, link:britanica.com shows 4,890 links to the online encyclopedia Britanica, while link:nytimes.com shows 7,340 links to the NY York Times online version. More links doesn't necessarily mean more reliability, but it does show popularity and the willingness of other sites to point their viewers to it.

 

The Bottom Line

I think one of the most valuable functions of online resources is to check facts regarding articles and information we acquire elsewhere. I frequently learn about topics in magazines and then explore them in more depth or check the veracity of the information online. Besides simply doing a Google News search, and then reading articles from different perspectives,  I often use some of these resources to check facts.

Fact check: This site is very fair  http:⁄⁄www.factcheck.org⁄ and I use it to get honest information. This site is simply the best.

Accuracy in Media (leans right) http:⁄⁄www.aim.org⁄. Check here to verify left leaning information sources.

StinkyJournalism.org http:⁄⁄checkyourfacts.org⁄

Snopes is the first place to check if you hear something that might be a hoax. http:⁄⁄snopes.com⁄

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting: www.fair.org. This site leans left, so use it to check out right leaning information sources.

 



Date: September 2008


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