The internet is a realm of false information and shoddy journalism where you should mistrust even the basic facts
One of the biggest questions the internet raises is this: how much should you believe of what you read online?
The answer is pretty depressing but obvious to those of us in the business: not much. Much of what comes free is so inaccurate and poorly researched as to be worthless.
Print publications generally pay for themselves and, historically, for the original research and writing that readers rightly expect. But online, most of what you read is filler, and probably nine-tenths of it is cut and pasted straight from somewhere else.
You don’t even need to be able to type to ‘populate’ a website; you only need three keys: Control, C and V. If you’re wondering how much content is recycled, take away the stuff you know was nicked from Google News and remove all the self-serving PR releases and then consider what you’re left with? Mostly, a whole lot of white space.
The inaccuracies and absence of proper standards is something of which every trained journalist is guiltily aware. But it is the spread and scale of rubbish recycled information that’s so shocking. That was brought home to me again recently when I was researching a big feature for our July issue on the risks of piracy.
Google the gruesome story of the murder of Malcolm Robertson (pictured above) in Thailand – maybe you did – and you would have come away with wildly inaccurate information. Some of it was retailed on reputable news websites. Even the most cursory cross-reference by a writer should immediately have shown something was wrong, but no-one seemed bothered to check.
So Mr Roberston’s throat was cut, or he was bludgeoned to death; the thieves escaped in a raft or they stole the dinghy; his wife was stripped or she was already naked when tied up; they were at Koh Lipe Island or Koh Dong or near the mainland port of Satun. So it goes on. Much of this information was quite obviously wrong. It didn’t even tie up with interviews available online with Linda Robertson.
When I checked with cruising sailors who were in the vicinity and knew the circumstances it was even clearer that the story was different and even more horrific than was generally reported. But to get a more accurate and detailed picture took me the best part of two days.
Online, you don’t get two days to check facts. The story is up, posted and over in hours. Even if new information comes to light, no-one ever goes back and corrects the copy. It’s there in all its hasty, slapdash impatience, disseminating a false impression in perpetuity – the internet has a frighteningly long memory.
There are other reasons to beware of online reporting, other pressures that are chipping away at the standards of journalism those of us over 40 were trained in stringently and reverentially. Maybe that’s an interesting subject for another time.
But for now, look out for the Google News cut-and-paste jobs, filter out the recycled angle-grinding PR reports (insanely, these now make the sailing news agenda by default) and, yes, the quick and cheap opinions, and ask yourself: what can you can trust, what was properly researched and objective, what has real value?