Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Web opinions are frequently unreliable

A set of questions from my textbook reading this week for an online course in Library and Information Technology ought to be transcribed and framed above the desktop or slipped into the e-Reader case of anyone who relies on the Internet as a source of information. The questions serve as an important reminder of what each of us should ask about the information we consume.

The following questions come from “Internet Technologies and Information Services” by Joseph B. Miller (Libraries Unlimited, 2009):
  • What is the apparent purpose of the site?
  • What is the identity of the resource? For instance, is the author well-known or clearly identified? Is the information verifiable in other sources? How objective is the perspective? Is there an obvious agenda or bias?
  • What about the publisher of the content — is it clear who sponsors the page? What is the domain location of [the] site (gov, edu, com, etc.)?
  • How complete is the information? Does it represent original content or just point to other sites?
  • How current is the site? When was it created or last modified?
  • What is the apparent audience level?
  • Is there evidence of scholarship, such as citations that can be checked?
  • Has the page been reviewed or recognized as important by others?
As people become more reliant upon the Internet as a source of news and commentary, it is vital that they critically assess the information they obtain: “In traditional publishing, a number of gatekeepers are involved in selecting and vetting content,” the textbook states. “Publishers have a stake in protecting their reputation, and they employ multiple strategies to ensure quality, including peer reviews of work prior to its acceptance and reviews by editors who examine content for both factual errors and overall quality.”

The cost of publishing and printing what the book refers to as “fringe literature” ensured to limit its dissemination in traditional publishing. Today, when anyone can have a blog for free, this is no longer the case. People have increased access to reports from credible research agencies but they also have increased access to opinions that are ill-informed rants. In my opinion, too few people bother to distinguish the two.

I don’t think it bad in and of itself that there is greater variety among viewpoints, but I do think that news and opinions that come from traditional sources have the benefit of being looked over by another set of eyes before someone posts it to the web.

This same holds true for book publishing as well; it is increasingly easy to turn your manuscript into a book or e-Edition but too frequently the book goes to press without professional editing.

The set of questions I listed above are especially valuable because answering them objectively about a particular site goes a long way toward ensuring reliability of the information you consume.

Before accepting any opinion from an anonymous source for example, the discerning reader ought to ask why this person felt the need to be anonymous. Is he or she afraid of legitimate oppression as a consequence of speaking out, or does he or she merely want to sling unsubstantiated accusations or venomous personal attacks?

If a writer alleges that information came from a particular source, but it really came from a third party’s biased summary of the position of that source, discerning readers ought to recognize that distinction.

An editor asks these questions of a contributor so that readers do not have to. If readers choose, more and more, to absorb unedited copy, they must ask these questions for themselves.

Published Feb. 20, 2011 in the Lake County Record-Bee

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