The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

The truth is out there, but where?

My wife’s family came to town last week, and I couldn’t resist showing off the blog a bit. It’s hard to explain to people what I do. People outside academia tend to think it’s all about teaching. The site opened up my mother-in-law and sister-in-law to some new ideas. I think I’ve got my wife’s mom hooked on Pandora.hans-mug.jpg

Showing off led to some inevitable questions, and I’ve got to admit one stumped me. My sister-in-law asked how she could tell if Web site can be trusted, and she wasn’t talking about secure financial transactions either. I guess she had done some research on some of the rumors floating around about different cosmetics out there and wasn’t sure what to believe.

Well, after showing her some of my favorite urban legends sites — www.snopes.com and www.museumofhoaxes.com — which often maintain up-to-date investigations into the balderdash circulating online, I didn’t really know what else to tell her. I knew my gut reaction — stick to trusted news sites, such as nytimes.com and cnn.com — would be misleading. Spend just a short amount of time perusing the hoaxes sites I mentioned above and you’ll see the mainstream media are often complicit in spreading falsehood. So-called citizen journalists — you know, the bloggers, who are supposed to be simply writing off the tops of their heads — are often the ones who ferret out the truth, and I’m not just talking about Rathergate either. I still have this article from 2005 bookmarked because I love to send it to Wikipedia doubters everywhere.

So I fell back on another journalistic principle in helping my sister-in-law judge truth from error. I gave her the following suggestions based on the concept of transparency, which newspapers basically understand as letting your readers know from where and how the information is coming.

  1. It’s so easy to link to original source documents online that any credible news site or article should. Follow a couple of the links and see where they lead too. Make sure they don’t all direct you to advocacy groups or the author’s friends.
  2. A credible author usually will let you know where he’s coming from. He’ll tell you how he stands on an issue and if he has any conflicts of interest. Sure, he might have an opinion, but that view carries more weight if you know he’s not being paid by the people he supports.
  3. Just as the author keys readers into where he’s coming from, he should do the same for the sources he uses. He should let you know more about them then where he found their writing. The most credible sites, in fact, do some of the legwork for you, questioning why someone would have such strong feelings about a particular topic.

By no means is this list comprehensive. Honestly, I came up with it at the spur of the moment. Writing it down here has helped it to make considerably more sense. I’d love to hear from others what they think makes a credible Web site. Please include your ideas in our comments section, and we’ll revisit this topic later. Thanks in advance!

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June 5, 2007 - Posted by | Hans Meyer

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