Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Don't trust; verify

As I’ve not-so-subtly noted in this space on what must be a dozen or more occasions, one of the great dangers of the Internet is its capacity to spread lies, myths, and otherwise misleading or out-of-context information.

It takes well-honed skepticism, patience, effort and practice to sift through all of the nonsense that peppers us from every direction nowadays, but tools are finally being developed to assist the cause.

Introducing Verification Junkie, a new web site by Josh Stearns, a self-confessed “verification junkie” who, like me, has grown weary of so much that is bogus being accepted by otherwise intelligent and well-meaning people as fact. Unlike me, Stearns has gone to great effort to do something about it beyond whining.

His effort focuses specifically on verifying claims made on social media when news is breaking, and his intended audience is journalists who might otherwise repeat wrong information, thereby giving it the credibility to become accepted as fact. He also writes a blog called Groundswell focusing on similar matters.

Among his compelling posts on Groundswell is a reverse engineering of the misinformation that proliferated after the Boston Marathon bombings. It’s worth a read: http://tinyurl.com/l5598vp.

More generally, Stearns’ Verification Junkie site compiles a list of places to go when news is breaking fast and furious and you want to separate fact from fiction. He’s compiled an impressive list of web sites, including the Report an Error Alliance, Media Bugs, TinEye and others. To visit his web site, use your mobile device to scan the QR code attached to this column, or just type verificationjunkie.tumblr.com into your web browser.

Stearns says he “fights for the future of journalism through media and technology policy.” It’s an important fight, long overdue and largely ignored by too many practicing journalists. There was a time, of course, when budding journalists were schooled in the “five Ws and one H”: who, what, when, where, why and how. Nowadays it seems only one thing matters: First.

So, we see police scanner calls reported as news, Twitter messages repeated as fact and the advent of “citizen journalism” in which anyone with a smart phone becomes a reporter.

For example, not long ago several local media outlets breathlessly reported that rescue vehicles were racing to the scene of a crash at the Pocatello airport. In truth, a small, private plane had tipped onto one wing, leaving the pilot, well, momentarily uncomfortable and probably a little embarrassed. This kind of “reporting” has become all too common.

Please, bookmark Verification Junkie and use it often (it’s most effective for national or worldwide news). It represents the “good” powers unleashed by the Internet, and none too soon.

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