Can We Trust New News Sources?
The topic of teaching ourselves and our kids to beware of false information in the media certainly isn’t new, but with continual advances in technology and the Twitter craze it seems timely to revisit the idea of not being fooled into believing everything you see or hear.
Two weeks ago, many Russians were angered to discover a “news story” on YouTube about axes that were baked into loaves of bread was a big hoax. According to
RussiaToday.com, the story starts off with the narrative, “A string of horrible findings has caused a scandal in Russia’s bread-baking industry. Over the last two weeks, more than 100 sharp axes have been found in bread loaves across the country.”
We may chuckle at the idea of believing this as being legitimate news – especially after finding it on YouTube – but just this past week while Russians were being sold on the idea of axe-fortified bread, here in the US hordes of people were wondering if Michael Jackson was truly dead or not after many of them received “tweets” on their cell phones from Twitter. The resulting avalanche of interest brought many news sites to a crawl or shut them down completely.
In this case, the “rumor” turned into truth when the unexpected death of Jackson
was first confirmed by gossip news website TMZ (owned by AOL) and later by the
LA Times. However, the musician’s passing demonstrated just how much more reliant and trusting we have become of new information sources.
If you have ever played the childhood game of sitting in a circle and passing a phrase from one person to the next, you can get an idea of how things may become distorted after being retransmitted through thousands of people in the social networking quagmire. What may be one person’s opinion, or perhaps even a hoax, can suddenly transform into what appears to be a legitimate information item.
In the case of Jackson, the initial tweets did lead many to search for more information. That was the right thing to do, as these people wanted verification that the news was indeed true. However someone else wanting to get a little attention during a week of high profile celebrity deaths injected a hoax message into the Internet bloodstream that stated actor Jeff Goldblum had died. So many people believed this was also true that Goldblum’s publicist had to release an official statement assuring the public that he was perfectly fine.
While the news of high profile celebrities is important, it doesn’t have long-term life-changing consequences for most of us. Yet I’m certain in this age of hoaxes and frauds that soon we will be challenged by more sophisticated stories that may be more difficult to confirm and could cause someone to make decisions based on completely false information.
The huge news organizations, like television networks and newspaper wire services we have come to rely on for decades, are certainly not spotless in their ability to provide only the truth and nothing but the truth. Yet when errors are made, these monolithic organizations face legal ramifications if they do not correct their mistake. And, of course, if the fictionalized information were intentional, they will most likely face lawsuits and other liabilities.
In contrast, bringing individuals using Twitter to the same bar of justice is nearly impossible – and likely fruitless. Just as we have had very little success in tracking down those who create computer viruses, misleading information sources may be just as elusive.
If we hope to maintain a democracy in which we have a source of reputable information, it is becoming increasingly important that we teach our children and ourselves how to verify information we read and hear – especially when it’s distributed through the Internet. I have presented seminars on this topic to teachers many times, and am adamant that the skill of verifying information needs to become a regular classroom activity that is employed whenever a student sits in front of an Internet connected computer. The same policy should be promoted in our homes as well, with the hopes of creating a whole new generation of web-savvy information consumers.
TIPS FOR FACT-CHECKING YOUR NEWS:
Try and get as close to the root of the source as possible. If someone sends you a Twitter or Facebook message about a current event, check for information from a “reputable” source.
Triangulate the information by finding more than one reputable source. In the case of the Michael Jackson announcement, the
LA Times and website TMZ (which has to answer to its owner AOL’s legal department) both verified the reports of his death.
Even in news reports from large organizations, check to see what their source is. If they are all using the same source for a news event (a personal friend, an official spokesperson, etc.) you really aren’t getting a diversity of sources.
Beware of “news” sent through chain emails or other informal or social Internet sources. Often the creators of these items are outright lying or fabricating situations that can appear to be truth. They may even quote legitimate sources.
www.snopes.com is a good site to check whenever someone sends you an email that purports to be true. You’ll be amazed how many of them are false.
Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews® - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.
and the Media by Rod Gustafson
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