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The misinformation trap

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BY JOHN G. NICKUM
Want to lose your credibility quickly? The “misinformation trap” can destroy your status as a knowledgeable authority in a heartbeat. If your readers, listeners, or viewers do not catch your mistakes, a competitor or that jilted lover from back in your high school days is waiting for the chance to expose your ignorance. Credibility is as hard to regain as your youthful body.
Misinformation is part of our daily lives. Politicians do it all the time. They live and die politically from misinformation, disinformation and even lies. They hire “spin doctors” specifically to produce misinformation. Trial lawyers justify misinformation as a court room technique because it’s up to the judge and jury to separate fact from fiction. Professional ethics seem a bit vague and flexible for them. “Truth in advertising” for the corporate world seems more myth than reality. Ideologues, whatever their passion, may actually believe what they are presenting as “truth,” even though there is no evidence to support their statements. However, we outdoor communicators operate under different standards. Our audiences expect accurate information and we have an ethical responsibility to present it.
Disinformation and lying are rare in our outdoor communications world, but what about misinformation? Are we always sure about the accuracy of our information? If the subject matter is within our experience and areas of expertise, we generally have enough background to separate the wheat from the chaff. As long-time participants in outdoor sports, we know these subjects thoroughly; but what about that “environmental stuff”? The environment affects almost everything we do in the outdoors — and misinformation, disinformation, and outright lies about it are common. Much of conventional green wisdom is only opinion or belief, but it is justified by proponents because the goal of saving the environment is worthy and honorable even if the information presented is not.
Stories about our outdoor experiences simply need to be told in an interesting manner. The facts of who, what, when and where can provide all we need to create a good story. Each of us has memories of situations and outdoors people who were way outside the box. Stories about these situations, animals, and people are easy and fun.
Sticking to proven science can be a harder task, even though nature is full of surprises, strange critters and some unusual human characters. We often feel the need to get beyond basic facts to hook our readers, listeners, or viewers when ecology and the environment provide the core of our story. Accurate biology and ecology may impress scientists, but will it attract the average reader? Why not kick it up a notch — a little embellishing might create an even better story? Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story? A little speculation here, an unreliable source there — the fictional story grows and the misinformation trap closes on us.
You do not have to be a scientist to ensure your information is scientifically valid, but it does take awareness of the ease with which misinformation can creep in to our material. Writing about causative factors — why the pheasant population is down, why montane glaciers are melting, how Asian carp got into the Mississippi River, whether chronic wasting disease is a human health risk — these are tough questions. It’s easy to speculate about the “why” of nature without bothering to add that it’s just your opinion. Do you feel the misinformation trap closing on you?
There are many sources that can protect you from providing misinformation; and there are simple ways to spot misinformation and less than accurate opinions. Scientifically valid information includes statements about probabilities — how certain is the author? Beware of sources filled with “could,” “might” and “may,” especially if the author is promoting a cause, including more funding for her research. I have found agency spin specialists guilty of publishing similar vague statements for the purpose of promoting their agency’s policies and practices. The topic of your story should be interesting to your followers, but make sure that you can also tell them the likelihood that it is accurate. Probability — certainty and uncertainty — is a basic part of science. Don’t be satisfied with a wild a** guess, or even a scientific wild a** guess. Your readers, viewers, listeners consider you to be an authority. They want to believe that your words are true.
I suggest that we have a professional and ethical responsibility to avoid the misinformation trap. Take the time to verify and validate information. Always wear your “bull” detector and learn the characteristics of propaganda. Don’t repeat it. Don’t produce it. Your professional credibility. ♦
—A member since 2005, John G. Nickum is a writer, editor and educator. Contact him at jgnickum@hotmail.com.
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