More about whether you should believe what you read online


Soon I’ll return strictly to sailing subjects, promise. But for but now?let’s go where the wind is blowing.

I have had so many emails in reply to my post about standards of internet journalism , some quite long, that I really cannot reproduce them here. But quite clearly this subject is one that many of you feel very strongly about indeed and have considered a lot.

Blogger John Pahl was annoyed by my comments about blogs being filled with cut and paste copy. But no, I wasn’t referring to blogs at all. Never mentioned the word. I was writing of the inaccuracies in online news reports.

Nor was I referring to our own websites specifically. Some here, I gather, didn’t like the idea of a rocking boat, while others I suspect wouldn’t mind if I took some concentrated potshots at while I was idiotic enough to stick my head above the parapet. But no again, my point was simply to illustrate that even we are not above the odd bit of cut-and-paste plagiarism. Oh come on, that’s not news!

Look, this is an uncomfortable truth. We’ve all done it. Can anyone working in ‘the converged media’ really put their hand on their heart and say they never, ever ripped a few so-called facts from the internet and published them unacknowledged without even a basic fact check?

Honestly, I can’t. We’ve all done it. Maybe you too, if you have a website of your own – I’ll bet you a pound to a penny you’ve used information you copied from elsewhere and didn’t check.

It’s not good, it’s not big and it’s not clever. It’s not proper newsgathering, for sure. It’s a guilty secret, a corner-cutting exercise that goes on because it’s quick and cheap and easy.

But the danger we create, all of us writing online, is that we oblige each other to exercise more and more scepticism. That is steadily undermining the contract of trust between publishers and readers on which a loyal following relies. It’s a two-way thing, because news you can trust still has, as it always had, a commercial value.

Here’s an interesting comment from David Fuller, who argues that the internet is potentially more reliable than print or broadcasting because it is revisable. It’s an improvable medium because it harnesses readers’ scepticism. Like the Wikipedia sandbox principle, where facts can be scrutinised and corrected.

‘The capital I internet is in fact the solution to the problem,’ he writes. ‘Most blogs (except those built on big-ugly in-house platforms) allow for comment. It is not a one way broadcast. So, comment – ask the Author – is that right? Or where did you get that from?

‘This is a pretty common practice on platforms like twitter, especially when there is a large, important event happening like the Mumbai terrorist attacks or the [G20 protests]. Comments that were “untruthful” were weeded out by a questioning community asking – “can you provide evidence?” or “who said that?” ‘

Yes, a good thought, and that may work with blogs or social networks, which are individually curated, but news sites rarely have comments sections. Try emailing the BBC, the New York Times, the Guardian or whatever about a story and asking ‘can you provide evidence?’ or ‘who were your sources’ and see how far you get. Nowhere.

News journalists file and move on rapidly to the next story. If they are not answerable to their immediate bosses about standards of accuracy they certainly aren’t going to answer us. No, errors made online are more likely to stay there and be replicated endlessly – that was my original lament.

So what news should we trust? It’s a personal judgement for the reader – it always has been. But for me, the most trustworthy news is that written for the higher standards of print and broadcast which is simultaneously published online, quality newspapers and the BBC being prime examples.

I trust them more because I can believe that their information came from primary sources and I know it has gone through a diligent process of quality control, with a team of professional specialists checking facts, sub-editing copy, proof reading and libel-checking.

But of course that’s labour intensive to achieve, and costly. Ay, there’s the rub.