The Net Skeptic

Welcome to the Net Skeptic Website. This site was created in the hopes of being a useful tool for journalists who use the Internet to gather information while reporting. It draws from principles of computer assisted reporting as well as from sites set up by other entities -- either private, educational or corporate -- to help journalists discern credible information from the not-so-credible.

Believe it or not
The Internet can be a valuable tool for journalists. It has the potential to quickly provide journalists with loads of information. It can also be the kiss of death for credible reporting. Jodi Cohen calls credibility the "Achilles heel" of the Internet in an Editor and Publisher article.

Credibility is the cornerstone for responsible reporting. Journalists "have an ethical obligation to ensure the information they report is accurate and credible." (Ketterer, 1998)

An "expert" must actually be knowledgeable in the field of which he is speaking in order to be a valuable source. So a nuclear physicist would not be a valid source for a report on genetic engineering, for example. The source must also be reliable.

Finding the truth
The credibility of information relies on its authenticity as well as the authenticity of the source. Information from an anonymous source is more suspect than information from a source willing to go on the record.

But this is not new information for journalists. The same rules must be applied when judging the credibility -- the authenticity or veracity -- of information found online, whether on Web pages, in databases or in e-mail.

No gatekeepers
The online world differs from real world publications in that there are no gatekeepers, in the traditional sense of the word. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of computers can publish anything on the World Wide Web. Many books on Web publishing, including Laura Lemay's "Teach Yourself Web Publishing in 14 Days With HTML 4.0," are available from most bookstores.

There are no editors who decide what gets uploaded to the Web. There are no fact checkers or copy editors who go over Web pages with a finetoothed comb before they are published. Just as anyone with a computer and Web browser has access to online information after it is published on the Web, anyone with a computer and Web publisher has access to put information on the Web. This has been called the "Joe from Dubuque" phenomenon (Johnson and Kaye, 1998).

Because of this arrangement, the Internet can be a repository of misleading information and bad advice (Wellman et al, 1996). Some argue that the strength of the Internet as an untamed frontier for anyone to express any opinion is also the main weakness for online credibility (Johnson and Kaye, 1998).

Be careful
Newspapers, by their nature, become a public record when published. This is not true of Web documents. Consider Web sites maintained by partisan political groups, special interest groups and religious organizations. All publish information on the Web, but is it all true? What about the Web site published by the National Association for the Advancement of White People?

When determining the credibility of information online, the journalist should take into account the information itself as well as the source of the information. There is a difference between search and research.

Finding the truth. A grain of salt. Rumors and hoaxes.
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