Sunday, March 13, 2011
Who will you trust in the wild-west information age?
I’ve been doing bits of some work over the last year for a tough little on-line taskmaster called Demand Media. It’s kind of like working at a digital factory, with writers labouring for a few bucks per piece doing what Demand calls “service journalism.”
The work has been enlightening.
The role of a Demand writer is to find answers on-line for the many strange questions people ask in Internet searches. I figured I’d be a natural fit for the work after all these years in journalism.
But it’s been much more challenging than I anticipated. In particular, I’ve come to see how difficult it is to assess your sources of information when the only place you can look is on-line.
I suspect that’s something we all need to think about more.
Traditional media are no longer the dominant source for news. A 2010 survey on the CNN Tech site found 61 per cent of Americans report getting at least some of their news on-line, compared to just 54 per cent who cite newspaper and radio as their regular sources.
Demand Media is rightly picky about sources. The company gets paid to provide answers for sites like eHow, so it’s pretty firm with its writers on the need to get things right.
You don’t want writers taking a best-guess approach when writing about how to import moose antlers to the U.S. from Canada, for instance. You don’t want them relying on user blogs or company advertising for assessing the effectiveness of armillatox as a cure for honey fungus. (Be prepared to research many obscure topics if you’re writing for Demand.)
What Demand needs - and really, what we all need - are legitimate, unbiased sources of information. The Internet is an amazing place, and a skilled on-line searcher can get much closer to “truth” now than has ever been the case before. But it truly is the Wild West out there.
If this is the future, we’re going to need new ways to gauge who to trust for the things that matter. With the Demand experience fresh in my mind, here’s what I’ve found to be important:
Find the original source. When you come across a report being cited or an excerpt quoted, do another search using more specific terms and make your way back to the site where the original material is posted. Second-hand sources (including the traditional media) can miss context and nuance, not to mention get the facts wrong.
Know whose views are being presented. Most Web sites will have some version of “About Us” on their home page. Read it. If you can find an annual report, read that, too.
To take the measure of a source, you need to know who’s talking and what kind of a stake they’ve got in the issue. You need to know who sits on the board of directors, who pays the bills, who calls the shots. It all matters.
Know your personal criteria for a “trustworthy” Web site. You don’t want to have to second-guess everything you find on-line. What sources do you think you can generally trust?
For the most part, I trust government sites for basic information (like rules around moose-antler importation). I trust their statistics but not always their conclusions, and take with a grain of salt any press release quoting a politician. I trust industry sites for basic product information and sector reports.
I rely on the sites of traditional media for much of my day-to-day news. But when I’m doing the Demand Media work or research for my column, I view them more as a jumping-off point and look for secondary sources as well.
Trust the wisdom of crowds - to a point. Wikipedia is verboten as a Demand source, but for the most part the “people’s encyclopedia” is strikingly accurate for everyday use. Still, I’d recommend a secondary source. And while I love user-review sites like TripAdvisor and the Internet Movie Database, that’s not to say I’d plan a travel holiday or a movie night solely on the information I find there.
As for blogs, treat them like the random musings that they are unless you absolutely know otherwise.
Keep an open mind. The dangerously seductive quality of the Internet is that it channels you toward information and viewpoints that fit with your own beliefs. For the sake of personal growth, societal tolerance and rational decision-making, watch out for that. Make a point of visiting some credible sites that challenge your thinking.