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Why Writers and Bloggers Should not Rely on the Internet

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.

Read more: Why online markets are flooded with wannabes and Free database of medical, legal and academic experts.

Maryan Pelland is a professional freelance writer with a strong web presence at Ontext.com, WomenDaybyDay.com and DemystifyingDigital.com.

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. hendri says:

    The point is blogger like a newswritter. But not all people writer some fact.

  2. RhondaL says:

    I’ve been both – old media and a blogger. I do know that its too easy to rely on Internet sources, and I’ve seen how erroneous material posted on the Internet gets forwarded and expounded upon.

    I’ve also seen old media quote the Internet, even though I know the Internet source has given incorrect information.

    Bloggers need to cite their sources with a link back and use those journalistic qualifying verbs like “allege, report,” etc.

  3. Dave Doolin says:

    Great article!

    I’m going to be provocative here: Honestly, nobody cares.

    And they don’t care because there’s no consequences for getting the facts wrong.

    Even more disturbing to me, what with my academic training and all (piled higher and deeper), insisting on factual correctness gets one labeled as “pedantic” or “too academic” or (my personal favorite) “anal retentive.”

    I totally get the whole “Information wants to be free” thing, I really do.

    But misinformation wants to be free, too, and it’s quite often more entertaining, more emotionally compelling, and always much, much cheaper. Facts are expensive.

  4. Shanna Small says:

    Good article. I have been scammed that way already on the web(not on my blog though). I get requests from people all the time to write bogus articles about subjects that I know nothing about for money. There are who sites dedicated to getting people to do this. It is horrible that it is getting to the point where you cannot trust anyone these days.

  5. PraShawn says:

    This is totally true. There are also other resources, old fashion ones like the papers, t.v and radio. These are also great resources for writers. It is also possible to bring back stuff that can be founded on the net. I think I rely mostly on the Internet. I think all I know about making money online except from the idea of payperpost.com comes from the Internet. I think you mean that we got to look beyond the Internet for fresh issues. Thank for sharing

  6. Black Sand says:

    Thanks for great post. Sometimes I believe to writes

  7. Something similar happened to a local cable/ISP company here in Los Angeles. A blogger complained that the cable/ISP company had changed their terms of service and were planning on charging more to people who used their internet service for large downloads or uploads, like movies. The blog went locally viral. Problem is, they hadn’t changed their terms of service and that additional charge information had always been there.

    They got a lot of bad internet press for something they didn’t do.

    BTW, I read it in the Los Angeles Times, so it must be true…

    Rumor and innuendo used to be passed over the telephone or in person, so it had a shorter, and less influential shelf life. Now with the advent of blogs and sites like Twitter, information, true or not, can circle the globe several times before disappearing behind the next big thing.

    If something I hear or read seems suspect, I will usually look it up someplace like Snopes.com. So far they have been reliable in separating truth from fiction.

  8. Michelle says:

    Excellent post. I read an article recently about a sort of “Wikipedia loop” that has become problematic: somebody makes an edit to Wikipedia without verifying the source; a journalist searching for information on that particular topic picks it up and publishes it; and then somebody editing the Wiki article cites the aforementioned article as its source.

    Back in the early days of search, when I was still in high school and we were first allowed to use the Internet for research papers, our teachers warned us only to use information that came from .gov or .edu sites, since they were more likely to be accurate than a .com or .net site that just anybody could toss up.

    Because of the proliferation of information on the Internet, it’s easy to get lazy about fact-checking. But if you’re writing any sort of nonfiction, it’s vital that you double-check your facts, whether you get them off a website or out of a book.

  9. Sean Davis says:

    This is great advice. I haven’t been blogging very long at all but this never crossed my mind. I do tend to think that whatever I find on the internet is fact. Thanks for the reminder that it’s not always true!

  10. Missy says:

    Its funny how certain individuals talk about “old journalists” trying to kill the Internet. They feel touched because they are just bloggers trying to be journalists, you never stepped into the Journalism school. You should feel ashamed of yourselves, defending these practices.

    Just because there is a new medium (Internet) it doesnt mean you can graduate online for Journalist.

    Get over your bitterness for not having gone to College.

  11. Jim says:

    I was just talking about this particular case last night with a friend of mine. I was one of the ones who got caught in the dupe. Oddly enough, I didn’t get the quote from you-know-who site, but from major newspaper sites in the U.S. and overseas. I figured if I found it on 4 or 5 different reputable sites, then I was good to go. I must say the quote was great. You can say why everyone latched onto it, myself included.

    I got an email through the contact page of my blog telling me about the article about the journalist and at first I was furious. I don’t know if I was angrier at him or myself for falling for it. Then I was angry at the newspaper sites I had checked prior to using the quote.

    I took the quote off my site and reworded the post so that it flowed naturally (quite a feat since it opened and closed with that great quote). Then I though perhaps I should have left it and added an addendum to the post about the situation and discussed there or in another post. Oh well, too late, it was gone.

    I’m glad there wasn’t money or my reputation involved as it was the first week or my blog being launched and I didn’t have much traffic yet. (Though I’m still working on beefing that one up. The perennial struggle. LOL)

    If the situation did nothing else, it taught me a very valuable lesson.

  12. mike says:

    A lot of things said on TV and in newspapers is also sometimes skewed. You can probably never really know until it is checked out at so many different places if it is right or not. Everyone should try to get as close to facts as possible though.

  13. darya says:

    What an excellent post!! This issue is particularly bad in the health and weight loss niches.

    As a scientist, I use the internet but I always go directly to PubMed and use the primary scientific literature as my source for content. Since I know what is actually going on, I am frequently shocked by the poor reporting done by major news outlets like CNN and the New York Times.

    The worst is that when other bloggers read and report from these “authority” sources they are just spreading the false information.

    Thank you for alerting bloggers to these issues.

  14. Most things on the internet are more opinion than fact. So mostly unreliable.

  15. Good points. Seems odd that Internet content creators cannot trust content created on the Internet, but you are correct.

  16. The Mother says:

    As a physician, I spent a lot of time in my training digging things out of the library. Medline changed a lot of that, making it much easier to find relevant information, but still requiring you to pull the articles from the library shelves.

    Then came the internet. In 5 seconds, one can find virtually everything ever written on a topic. The problem is whether or not what you find is worth the electrons it’s written in.

    I taught debate and rhetoric for a time to a junior high school class. My hardest job was teaching them to respect sources.

    Favorite story: one kid presented a talk on Atilla the Hun. A remarkable leader from an illiterate society, he didn’t leave much written information behind. But this young man gave QUOTES. From a website named “Realm of Shades.”

    You can imagine how much fun I had with that one.

    The sad thing is that this is exactly what informs the pseudoscience and alternative medicine movements. It’s what makes it possible for Jenny McCarthy to convince moms not to vaccinate their kids for preventable diseases.

    And MANY bloggers fall into the trap of not verifying their sources, making the proliferation of pseudoscience even easier.

  17. Teen Flipper says:

    I completely agree with you that internet sources can’t be trusted. However, my question is if the old bugger was dead, how do you expect someone to place a call to verify the quote found on the -pedia site you’re referring to.

    I think it is kinda funny so many reporters got bamboozled my this fellow, how on earth did someone figure it out, or did the guy say “”oh yeah, I made that up.””

    Most things are skewed anyway no matter where you get the information from. I think unless you see it first hand, you really can’t ever expect to know what ‘really’ happened.

  18. enjoygame says:

    This has happened to me a few times now. Doing research about local history sometime, I found a lot of conflicting evidence, which I had gathered from my local library (remember those things!?) http://www.ugg2u.net Someone above me mentioned “do a google search”. I don’t think this will solve the problem, as the internet can be so viral. That one “fact” that Darren found, could be repeated, copied and posted throughout the net…

  19. linxiting says:

    Maybe you are right… But my opinion is that, if you go to reliable websites, you will find reliable content… Off course the question is were can I find these reliable websites :). I think that if you take your time to search the web you will find conent that you can rely on.

    Correct me if i’m wrong :)

  20. Dean Saliba says:

    Yes, especially when you have bored fools who are happy to post rubbish and lies about people.

  21. marl says:

    in some point i agree… BUT great loads of information are being added on the net everyday that are from books.

    Great example is wikipedia, it is a reliable source of information..An encyclopedia on the net indeed!

  22. Sankar says:

    Hi Maryen,

    Yes, you are right. Before posting some thing in the web, It’s very important to make sure that whether the information is right or wrong or it’s a rumor or a false statement from the wrong person. It would be better and important to confirm from the primary source that we are posting something accurate.

    Thanks
    Sankar

  23. I’m neglecting deadlines to spend time here reading these terrific comments! I especially love the reader who determined I have a long term hatred of the Internet – ahh if only it were so, I wouldn’t have carpel tunnel and a wracked up neck vertebra! I latched onto the ‘net when it first began and don’t have the discipline to detach.

    And for “The Mother” – I loved your reply. Atilla the Hun would have been proud to know his historic words were preserved…

    Everyone else—such considered and varied opinions are a treasure!

    mkp
    ontext.com

  24. I think this issue points to a larger cultural shift that a few earlier commenters have pointed to: 1) this is not new: lazy news stories have appeared in print and on the radio or telephone for eons. It’s just that 2) there is so much more content out there than a decade — or a century — ago. With that much information, the number of errors (inadvertent or sinister) will simply be greater.

    I think we, as a consuming culture, will need to adjust how we ingest and process information: we must always check, attribute, or simply hold fewer things as “hard fact” as we go about our daily business.

    But incumbent upon bloggers, just as with newspeople, is the responsibility to stop the dissemination of incorrect information. Difficult task, but not impossible.

  25. in some point i agree… BUT great loads of information are being added on the net everyday that are from books.

    Great example is wikipedia, it is a reliable source of information..An encyclopedia on the net indeed!

  26. Mike Goad says:

    Wikipedia can also be a bad example for supposedly reliable information that isn’t.

    People who edit wikipedia sometimes have their own agenda and remove information that conflict with it.

  27. New here, like what I’m seeing. You guys have an amazing amount of collective wisdom.

    I do fairly well as a pro blogger, but I’ve made the “Internet source” mistake and been bitten. Usually this happens to me because I’m trying to save time. I’ll have access to a primary source due to my position in the industry I cover, but just don’t take the time to go there. Over the last year I’ve worked really hard on my self discipline in this area, and things have gone much better. But it’s a constant battle because secondary sources on the web are so easy, and time is so limited.

  28. Can you provide more information on this?

  29. I think relying on the internet somewhat takes away from the whole idea of blogging. Blogging mostly involves your own ideas and beliefs and the internet as a source takes away that aspect of blogging. It’s not a bad thing but if your using the internet as a resource make sure you have all the facts.

  30. I agree with you, Maryan. The Internet is a somewhat unreliable source.

  31. Ayana says:

    Awesome stuff, keep up the work!