Guest Post by Maryan Pelland from Ontext.com
Bad and inaccurate information from websites isn’t new. The Internet can be a fabulous tool, but it should not be the sole source of information for any factual writing from blogs, to research for fiction, to magazine or newspaper articles. Anyone can create a website and fill it with text. There’s never a guarantee that information online is accurate or current. That’s why writers and journalists should not rely on the Internet.
Here’s a dead-on example of what can happen if a writer sucks information out of a website and spits it out as fact, never bothering to make a verification phone call or send an email to a primary source.
Once upon a time, not long ago, a guy with a website thought he’d do something silly to see if media would bite an attractive lure. On an encyclopedic website (yes, that really big one), Shane Fitzgerald of Dublin posted bogus information about a well-known Frenchman, movie music composer, Maurice Jarre.
Fitzgerald made up a deep, thoughtful comment that Jarre might have said about life. Unfortunately for some professional journalists, Jarre never actually uttered the words in questions. They were fiction. Then Jarre died.
How Bloggers and Journalists fell into the ‘net
It seems a couple of journalists needed filler for their pieces about Jarre’s passing. So off they went to you-know-what-ipedia, looked the old fellow up and cut and pasted the pithy comment that Fitz had added to the encyclopedia. Not just blogs, but major newspapers and blogs in the United States, England, and India used the quote in their Jarre obituaries and articles, quoting as though Jarre had actually said the words. Ooops.
As a writer, you must understand primary and secondary sources. A primary source is the clichéd horse’s mouth. It’s the woman who pontificated the idea; the man who discovered the discovery. You’re obligated to find their phone number and dial them up. Or send an email. You ask direct questions and receive direct answers which you can quote, without making any alterations, or you can paraphrase if you indicate the paraphrasing.
A secondary source is not the original. Secondary is a he said or she thought kind of source wherein someone heard, or read, or decided what the original utterance or action was. Secondary is Wikipedia, Suite101.com, Examiner, and so forth. You can see clearly how facts get diluted here, right? Did George Washington cut down the tree he allegedly took out? Nope. He did not. Someone thought it was a cool story, so they told two people and so on.
Must Bloggers Abandon Internet Resources?
If you choose to get your lead from the Internet or you’re surfing for a story idea, fine. Mull over what you uncover online. But before you present a fact as a fact – whether you’re a blogger, a Pulitzer winner, a stringer, a novelist, or a freelancer – your obligation is to verify facts you present as facts. Find the horse and get him to whinny at you. Otherwise, folks, you don’t know he whinnied. Sure, print what you cull from websites, but say, “I culled this from a website.”
Do that, and you can call yourself a professional writer of blogs, stories, articles or columns. Anything less, and you don’t even deserve the pennies per article some writers settle for in today’s markets. And that is, of course, why writers and journalists should not rely on the Internet.