Just the Facts, M'am -- Writing factual articles.
Broke Betty Blogger blogs brazenly brash but blurry buzz. In other words, Betty writes articles on the internet as a hobby. She makes her statements convincingly, even boldly, yet she does not have all her facts before publishing. Depending on Betty’s subject matter, that could be a dangerous thing, causing Betty -- and the rest of us who do it -- untold problems in the future. These could range from lost credibility to libel.
Do we bloggers -- all legal implications aside -- have the same obligation to the truth as journalists who write professionally for the newspapers? Yes, we do. At least, we do if we want to be taken seriously. What do you think happens if a reader realizes that something written on a blog is not quite factual due to an obvious lack of research? I know what I do….I simply avoid their work forever after. Their credibility is gone.
What constitutes research? How much research has to be done in order to have the facts you need for an article? What kind of research needed depends on the kind of article written. If that article is about how satisfied secretaries are with their job duties, then the writer needs to interview secretaries. If it is an article about Abraham Lincoln, then any fact that is uncovered needs to be double checked for accuracy using reference books and articles. A writer should always check more than one source for facts.
A Perfect Example
A local blogger wrote an article about excellent schools within the city limits. Unfortunately, this particular article was even used in a “guest column” for the local paper. One of the colleges (a for-profit two year career college) he mentioned as excellent has a very poor retention and graduation rate. It also has a very high default rate on student loans, which is well over 3 times the national average. Last year, they had several issues with accreditation of two different programs.
I also didn’t like several business practices that they use to lure students to sign up. I did not like the way they hid behind their reputation as an old college when, in fact, they had been purchased by new owners several years previously. I could see that they had taken great steps to hide the ownership of the school in order to perpetuate the continuity of an old revered institution in town.
I emailed him about it, sending along an article that I had just published on my own blog about the school. That article can be read at my website, www.whyitmatters.org. He wrote back that I was “missing the intent” of the article, which was to “get people to look at the city a little differently when it comes to education.” Well….no, I got that. I have very good reading comprehension.
His reasoning was that because his article was really about getting people to look at the city differently in terms of living there, it didn’t really matter if that particular school was excellent or not. He sought to show that though the city’s school system does not have a great reputation, that there are some decent schools at all levels. He admitted that he knew very little about the school and that he “talked to a couple of students that had good things to say. . . . that the school is probably the least significant of all of the schools listed.” What?
Not being able to leave well enough alone, I emailed him again. I told him that for many people, reading something in black and white makes it true. Also that since the school was listed, it made it no less “significant” in the article than any other. I asked him, “what if even one young and vulnerable student reads the article and enrolls based on your assertion that it is excellent and ends up with a bunch of debt but no education?” He did not email me back with an answer.
Why Do Writers Write?
Why do writers write? Besides the lure of money (imagined or not) , I think most people are hoping to make a positive difference in the lives of the reader, whether by entertainment or education. That is what Mr. Blogger was trying to accomplish. He wanted to educate his readers to look at the school situation differently because a the school system is one of the reasons people choose -- or not -- to live in a certain community. Did he really accomplish his goal?
Maybe, but if, like me, some other readers have knowledge that the school is nowhere near to excellent, those readers are going to discredit his whole article -- and maybe any future ones as well. If even one of the schools on the list is suspect, the reader has to wonder if any of the schools are excellent. Are the other ones excellent or did he just ask “a couple of students?” Again, what if prospective students take him at his word and spend thousands of dollars to attend just based on his word? Not one reader is going to guess that he just asked “a couple of students.” I certainly do not want to be responsible for ruining the credit and education of a young student. The written word can be powerful and with that comes responsibility.
Blogger Code of Ethics
Several bloggers out there have addressed the subject, going so far as to write up a Bloggers Code of Ethics. Some are an adaption of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. I think that following these codes is a good bet for credibility in the internet community.
I believe that even though bloggers are not considered journalists -- at least by journalists-- many readers do consider us journalists. When I am doing research on the internet, the search engines pull up more blogs than newspapers. Many blog sites are so well done that the reader cannot tell the difference from a legitimate newspaper article to a blog. A well-researched blog is an article like any other out there on the internet. Many blog sites are becoming as highly respected as most newspaper websites. One example is the Huffington Post.
We have a responsibility not to just churn out article after article without checking our facts. The internet has given us an unprecedented voice. For the first time in history, we have just as good a chance at being heard as the journalist at our local paper -- and maybe an even better chance. We have the potential of a world wide audience. Do we want to waste this wonderful opportunity with false information that makes the public reject us?
A World of Research Material At Our Fingertips
Bloggers today have better access to research material than journalists had before the advent of the internet. We have public records at our fingertips, newspaper archives, and millions of web pages on most every subject one can think of. In spite of that, we still must be careful. The internet is also full of false information.
I read an article once about a Dublin University student who played a practical joke with Wikipedia. According to Shawn Pogatchnik of the Associated Press, Shane Fitzgerald said he was “testing how our globalized, increasingly Internet-dependent media was upholding accuracy and accountability in an age of instant news.”
Shortly after the death of French composer Maurice Jarre, Fitzgerald made up a quote and posted it on the Jarre’s Wikipedia page. Many newspapers and bloggers around the world used the quote and attributed it to Jarre. After he admitted the hoax a month later, many papers had to make corrections. Fitzgerald is quoted as saying:
“I was really shocked at the results of the experiment. I am 100% convinced that if I hadn’t come forward, that quote would have gone down in history as something Maurice Jarre said, instead of something I made up. It would have been another example where, once anything is printed enough times in the media without challenge, it becomes fact.”
This is basically just what I said to Mr. Blogger. All people have to do is read it to believe it. It becomes fact. Obviously, legitimate journalists and newspapers are not immune from lack of research either. I try to check several sources before making a statement of fact when I write an article, but I am sure that if I write enough of them, I will make my own mistakes (and probably already have).
Unlike Mr. Blogger, who did not retract his blog or printed a correction, I believe that we have an obligation, just like the press, to admit our mistakes and correct them. Admitting to mistakes does not lessen our credibility. It increases it.