Under the influence on the information superhighway. (image via FFFFound)
The breakdown: What are the pitfalls of relying on user-generated content without verifying its authenticity and source? Robert Stribley confronts the issue and provides sound advice for content curators below.
“Trust, but verify.” That saying’s often attributed to Ronald Reagan. Turns out, though, he was likely quoting an English translation of the Russian proverb, “doveryai, no proveryai.” Furthermore, some folks claim the American journalist Damon Runyon crafted the quote decades earlier. Let me know if you can track down an authoritative source to verify that.
Regardless of who first said it, however, that maxim should be the mantra of any content professional relying on user-generated material to enrich their site. Truth is, there’s no shortage of the stuff these days and more and more companies, organizations — even the media — are turning to user-generated material to fulfill their content needs. During the recent protests over the election in Iran, for example, we saw the media trolling Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social networking sites for photos, images, anecdotes, quotes – any information they could glean from that society, whose government builds tight dams to control the flow of information. However, after they got burned a time or two, we also saw the media back-peddling and presenting such content with a caveat or two, as well. Presenting such loosely vetted content repeatedly was probably not a good move for the integrity of journalism.
Similarly, a young woman named Beccah Beushausen garnered national attention recently, when she created a blog, entitled Little One April, through which she detailed her pregnancy with a terminally ill child. Anti-abortion groups covered her story, treating it as fact. They were understandably outraged, when the story turned out to be a hoax. They trusted, but they certainly failed to verify.
What to do then, when so much content lies at our fingertips, ripe for the plucking, but we want to maintain a healthy skepticism about its veracity? Well, we turn to the same basic principles all journalists worth their salt turn to when evaluating their sources. As the viral circulation of internet scams and urban legends attests, however—and you probably have a few in your inbox right now—many people aren’t familiar with these principles. Even the most skeptical among us sometimes fall prey to poorly sourced, inaccurate information, but by scrutinizing content in light of some simple guidelines, you’ll filter out a lot of poorly sourced material, as well as plain ol’ fabricators.
Where’s the Source?
Consider the source of the content you’re reviewing. What’s his or her background? Consider the individual’s education, career, and publishing history. That’s not to say, of course, that people’s opinions are only valid if they have the right alma mater, but that information may provide context and insight as to whether someone’s qualified to make the particular claims he or she’s making.
Additionally, always track things down to their original source. If you want to use a particular quotation from content you’ve discovered, the obvious question you should ask is, “Where’d that come from?” How many times has that particular quote or factoid been passed around and does it even resemble the condition it originally appeared in? If the source for that nugget comes first-hand—it’s the producer of the piece itself —ask yourself, is the source reliable? If the source comes second-hand, ask, where’s the attribution? Is it visible, or is it absent? Hidden within a passive construct? For example, a construct like “The Governor is said to be hiking the Appalachian Trail” should have you asking, “Who says the Governor is hiking the Appalachian Trail?” Also, when attribution is provided, ask how easily you could track down the individual who first provided the information. Often, faulty sources can be revealed via a simple phone call or a search to verify an individual’s credentials. Quoting an anonymous person whose background details you cannot trace beyond their blog is definitely not the best way to ensure the veracity or authenticity of the information you’re reproducing.
What’s the Angle?
Establish the context your source is publishing in. What else have they created? Are they generally reliable? What are they linking to? Who do they consider authoritative? Examining these points can reveal much about their own discernment, their critical eye. What are their biases and are they transparent about them? Bias may be unavoidable, but does their content display critical thinking and appropriate balance? Or do they merely provide a single side of the story at all times, without any appropriate counterpoints? It’s understandable, perhaps, that as human beings, we seek out material, which reinforces that which we already believe, but that practice certainly doesn’t ensure the curatorship of rock-solid, accurate information.
How’s the Tone?
When we present content to consumers, we owe it to them to consider the overall temper and tone of a content provider’s body of work. Is it reasonable? Considered? Or purely inflammatory? An edgy, even pugilistic tone may make for enjoyable reading, but if that’s all you’ve got, if there’s no substance behind the posturing, you haven’t got much. Don’t mistake bluster or indignation for authority. On the other hand, a sharp tone coupled with authoritative, carefully developed content might be the mix you’re looking for. Either way, when you present such content, you should consider what baggage comes with it. Because, whether you’ve reviewed it or not, someone may hold you responsible for the tone-and the biases-which accompany it.
All of the preceding, of course, could be reduced to “verify, verify, verify.” Trust, but verify. Why’s that so important? You can always post a correction or withdraw content if it turns out to be inaccurate, can’t you? Sure. But you’re in the trust-building business when you publish content, so you want to avoid undermining your credibility. And repeatedly posting poorly sourced information is a sure-fire way to do that.
Jannseen, Kim. “Blogger’s baby was a hoax.” Chicago Tribune. June 12, 2009
Murphy, Brian. “World’s media seeks ways around Iran clampdown.” AP. June 21, 2009
Ormondroyd, Joan, Michael Engle, and Tony Cosgrave. “Critically Analyzing Information Sources.” Cornell University. October 6, 2004
Steele, Bob. “‘Who Said That?’ Guidelines for Evaluating Sources.” Poynter.org. August 1, 1999