Finding the truth

It's not as easy as 'point and click.'


The truth is out there.
The main theme of the television series "The X-Files" applies equally to the Internet. Finding the truth is a matter of where and how to look.

How can a reporter distinguish the difference between the truth and lies -- or even half-true rumors or clever hoaxes -- when everything is so slickly presented?

Paul Gilster, author of "Digital Literacy," claims that anything presented on a computer screen has instant credibility because of "a lingering public perception...of the computer's ferocious accuracy: computers don't make mistakes." He further claims that this, coupled with the idea that the Internet was developed by the academic-scientific community under government auspices, leads many to accept anything they read from a computer screen as fact.

Sometimes it's even hard to differentiate between an official site and a copy-cat or parody site. During the 1996 presidential campaign, some Web surfers looking for the Bob Dole home page stumbled across a site featuring the Dole fruit company logo and proclaiming Dole was "the ripe man for the job." (Johnson and Kaye, 1998)

"I read somewhere that..."
Often Web surfers use information they find online without adequately adjusting for the validity or credibility of the source of that information. In effect, they store or relate bits of information without making a distinction between information received from a news site or a chat room.

Researchers refer to this as the "I read somewhere that" phenomenon (Sundar, 1998). This is similar to the so-called "sleeper effect," by which people remember information over time but forget the source, whether it be a newscast or advertisement.

Is it the truth?
Journalists carrying their investigations onto the online world must be attentive to the source of information they gather, for there lie important qualifiers of credibility.

As CNET reminds visitors to its Web site, there is a difference between search and research. No search engine is comprehensive. Search engines merely compile data, and many hits or recommendations are often sold to advertisers. Journalists may need to go offline to check the veracity of information found online.

Copyright, affiliation and other ownership information may provide clues to the credibility of a site's content. The Web address or URL may also help journalists judge the credibility of the site. Government sites generally have more credible information that non-profit or special interest organization sites, which may attempt to "spin" content to achieve the group's goal (Ketterer, 1998). CNN.com and The New York Times Online are more credible than a chat room or bulletin board. And "official" company sites are generally more credible than sites maintained by individuals.

More responsible Web publishers include when the site was updated, and many are updated regularly. While this does not ensure credibility, it shows that the information is current and someone is monitoring it closely (Ketterer, 1998). Current information is generally more valuable to the journalist.

Search and research
Some sites are used merely for background, to help the reporter frame pointed, informed questions before an interview. Some sites include documents to be referred to in a story. Other sites define terms or offer contact information (Ketterer, 1998). The journalist should keep these different functions, or levels of research, in mind while surfing the Web.

CNET suggests tracking information backward along links, going offline to confirm or supplement facts and -- above all else -- not adding to the misinformation with sloppy reporting or hasty opinions online.

On a related note, journalists should be careful when interviewing via e-mail. According to a 1998 Editor and Publisher article by T. Bruce Tober, more reporters are conducting interviews this way. Tom Stewart-Gordon of Texas, editor of the SCOR Report, offers this advice: "We had better make sure the respondent is who we think he is and not a secretary or someone else who cannot stand by his answers."

Believe it or not. A grain of salt. Rumors and hoaxes.
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