Monday, July 27, 2009

Information consumers should beware, too

One of the great challenges for information consumers in the 21st century is figuring out whether to believe what they read, see or hear.

The first rule of thumb is that no information source is infallible. Usually reliable sources such as the Wall Street Journal, the BBC, the Economist or the nation's major magazines and newspapers miss the mark from time to time and publish a story that's either insufficiently researched or is too influenced by the writer's personal bias. Journalism involves human beings, which means it's subject to human error.

In the case of usually reliable and credible information sources, the best way to ensure that what you're reading is accurate is to check it against other usually reliable, credible information sources.

Perhaps understandably, we are all too eager to accept as gospel information or stories that conform to our personal politics or values, regardless of the veracity of the source. We tend to drift toward sources that skew toward our value set. Sources that want to be seen as credible but too often insert a particular political spin to their coverage include such TV networks and Web sites as MSNBC, Fox, Huffington Post and The Drudge Report.

Of course, all the national political magazines such as The Nation, New Republic, American Conservative and National Review, among many others, make no pretense of applying any standards of journalism to their work -- they are opinion, pure and simple. Take them for what they are.

Then there are the information sources that are filled with nothing but conjecture, innuendo, spin, blather and even hatred and lies. Many of the chain e-mails so popular nowadays fall into this category -- they come across as credible information when they are essentially complete fiction. But how to tell?

One good standard is the same one we apply to food that may have been in the refrigerator too long but looks OK -- when in doubt, throw it out. Unless an unsolicited e-mail provides sufficient sourcing and background information for a claim, it's probably bogus.

We've all received these -- debunked claims that President Barrack Obama isn't an American citizen, or that the New World Order is secretly controlling the global economy. While this is perfect fodder for conspiracy theorists, the information is almost always just plain wrong.

If you aren't willing to just hit "delete" on this sort of material, there are a number of Web sites that specialize in investigating urban myths and other nonsensical material floating around the Internet, including these two: Snopes.com and factcheck.org, the latter of which is run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

The bottom line is, not all "news" is created equal.

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