Beware the Internet speed trap

grahamBy Bill Graham There’s a place on the Information Highway where speed can make you slide off the road, over a cliff and take a painful tumble into a murky bog. Worse, there’s always an audience of hundreds or perhaps even thousands witnessing your fall.  These are perilous times for mistakes, and many of us are accident-prone. A journalist’s research moved slower in the old days, back when we depended on reference books, clipped stories stuffed in desk drawers and gathering information directly from sources. Fact checks that used to take 15 minutes to an hour thumbing through materials or asking people questions now takes one to five minutes of online research (unless you get distracted by all the other cool stuff that comes up on a search).  But take care, dear outdoor communicators. The lure of speed can lead to mistakes. Some of you might merely be repeating along with the pack. But others could be highly embarrassing for you.  Once an error in fact or theory appears in print on the Net – it can be repeated endlessly.  For example, news a few years back about chronic wasting disease drew a lot of media interest because it came on the heels of a mad cow disease outbreak and high concerns about human health.  I watched with interest as one reporter after another said that CWD belonged to a group of diseases called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, which are caused by misshapen proteins in cells called prions.  Biologists repeat the prion theory as fact, too, when asked about causes by media. That’s because Stanley Prusiner won a Nobel Prize in 1997 for his prion theory and research. Plus, prion offers a quick and snappy word to use, and it provides readers with an easy answer.  However, the cause of CWD and similar diseases is hotly disputed in the world of microbiology. And Prusiner’s Nobel Prize was questioned by others in the field.  I refer you to Richard Rhodes’ book, “Deadly Feast, the Prion Controversy and the Public’s Health” (Simon & Schuster, 1998) if you want details. My money since 2002 has been on Frank Bastian and his spiroplasma bacteria research as the leading track toward a cause and a cure.  But much like an Internet info search, I digress.  The point is, when it comes to serious issues and facts that are off the beaten path, you must do detailed and serious research to know you’re right, or that you’ve at least included all the possibilities.  Some goofs caused by the Net’s speed and ease are in the “close but not on the money” category.  I recently researched a person who had filed some lawsuits, according to various news stories on the Internet. When I actually talked to the person, he told me he actually had only thought about filing a lawsuit but never did. But once the first news story ran saying he had filed a lawsuit, other media outlets repeated that error over and over. A hint that something was amiss was that there were no stories reporting the mythical lawsuit’s outcome. Some errors can be terribly painful.  The worst I’ve witnessed involved an English professor and not a journalist, but it’s a prime example of what could happen to any of us.  I attend a Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday celebration each year at a small liberal arts college because it always has an inspirational program with excellent speakers. At a recent one, I was startled a bit at the featured speaker listed in the program.  The copy said she was a counselor for people with alternative sexual lifestyles, she had college training in this area, and she had appeared as a guest on several daytime television talk shows.  Well, I thought, this holiday is about tolerance.  As the service got under way, the English professor stood up to introduce the featured speaker.  “Ladies and gentleman,” he said, “I must apologize that the information printed in your programs about our speaker is not correct.” Turns out, the professor was too busy to fool with his duties of gathering the information on the speaker so he assigned some of his students to do it. They did a Google search on the person’s name, he said, and it turns out there are two people with that identical name. Except the actual speaker had a doctorate in social science, a distinguished career in academia and civic service, and was an expert in human relations, not alternative sexual relations. Plus she had never been on daytime TV (a big plus in my book).  “Although I did not make this mistake, I was ultimately responsible for providing the information for the program and I’m sorry,” the professor said. As professional journalists, we’re also responsible for making sure our work is correct. The reading public is not forgiving about our mistakes. They ratchet our credibility down each time one occurs.  And in this hyper-competitive publishing atmosphere, our credibility is crucial.  Bill Graham is a writer for the Kansas City Star and serves on OWAA’s board of directors. [print_link]

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