I just stumbled on a post by Phil Gyford entitled With great audiences where he discusses whether bloggers have a responsibility to do more fact checking once they grow to having a large audience. Phil writes

With this greater audience comes a greater responsibility. If 100,000 people are reading your words you need to be more certain about what you say than if it’s just for a bunch of mates. I can’t help feeling that Boing Boing has stepped past the hazy mark where it can get away with publishing off-the-cuff posts about events in the world without spending some of the time and money we assume those ads are generating on checking facts. Let’s look at a couple of examples that might have benefited from more research.

In January there was a post about a man who was arrested for attempting to hack a tsunami appeal website. For Boing Boing the juicy story wasn’t that the man was arrested (as reported by BBC News a week earlier) but that he was arrested for using an unusual browser, which the company managing the donations mistook for a hacking attempt. It’s a great story, but Boing Boing’s basis for this report comes from a source on an unnamed mailing list. Cory’s introduction to the mailing list quote reports the event as fact, not rumour, and this no doubt contributed to hundreds of other weblogs in turn reporting the event as fact.

Leaving aside the mindless gullibility of all these other webloggers, when readers start assuming what you post is fact this is probably a sign that you should be checking those facts a little more.

The second example is Boing Boing’s post about a high-school principal who “banned blogging” because it “isn’t educational”. Part of the blame lies with the source story at the Rutland Herald whose over-eager sub-editors misleadingly headlined the story “High school bans blogging”. In fact the school banned a single website and the principal simply issued a sensible warning about children weblogging — as with any activity online, kids should be careful with the information they make public.

But Boing Boing got carried away with the newspaper’s headline, repeating it in theirs even though a cursory read of the newspaper article reveals that no one “banned blogging”. The newspaper claims the principal doesn’t think blogging is educational, and Cory could certainly have criticised him for this alone, although it would make for a less dramatic post. The repetition of the lie about the principal banning blogging, rather than his apparent opinion, is possibly also what prompted a reader to suggest people should email the principal to complain.

A professional publication should have called the school to verify the story before simply republishing it. Otherwise the publication would, perhaps, end up criticised on Boing Boing like the Indian news agencies that blindly repeated a hoax in February.

I found Phil's post via Clay Shirky's post Banning blogging, 'Toothing, and Yoz. Clay Shirky seems to agree with Phil and goes one step further to admonish bloggers who simply echo what they read on the Web without applying critical thinking to what they are reading. He also points out that Boing Boing is not alone in this behavior by writing

My employer is a victim of the half truths and rumors Slashdot spreads on an almost weekly basis. There are lots of stories about Microsoft that are now part of the IT culture which are mainly rumors started on Slashdot. A few months ago the MSN Spaces team was the target of a flood of critical posts in the blogosphere after a misinterpretation of the terms of use for the service were posted to Boing Boing. This doesn't seem much different to me than supermarket tabloids that are always reporting rumors about  Brad & Jen, Nick & Jessica or J-Lo & P.Diddy. 

The most interesting response to Phil's post I've seen is Danah Boyd's post in defense of BoingBoing (or why i'm not a journalist) which argues that Cory and Xeni (Boing Boing editors) are simply blogging as a form of self expression and the fact that they have a large readership should not be considered a responsibility by them.

Maybe I'm just a corny comic book geek but I've always felt "With great power, comes great responsibility". To each his own, I guess.


Friday, April 8, 2005 3:37:50 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
I agree with you. Not only should we have a responsibility to others, but to ourselves. We should have enough self-respect and morality to 'want' to verify the information we're discussing or qualify it correctly.

But then again, I'm idealist when it comes to this kind of stuff...a realist would look at my comment and go "yeah right, whatever." ;-)
Friday, April 8, 2005 4:10:22 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Somewhat related, I have been noticing a widespread and somewhat un-nerving practice of posting wholly quoted copy/paste jobs from other sources (mainly other blogs) without any attempt at attribution at all. This is coming almost entirely from amateur bloggers with of course no training in journalism, however I (for one) have found it and am reading it, and I'm not the only one I'm sure.

It's one thing to say "Slashdot posted some drivel today, here it is", and entirely another to post the drivel itself as though it were written by the poster (although in the majority of the cases I don't think that was the intent, they just forgot to attribute their source)

I rambled on some yesterday in my blog on this subject, where I commend Spaces for providing the "talking about" feature as a tool to try to "build in" attribution.
Friday, April 8, 2005 5:15:13 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
I think you're right. Although, I don't think that it mattesr about the size of the audience, but more if you are seen as an authorative source. Or, to put it another way, if the readers of a blog/site are prone to taking everything published there as absolutely true (as with slashdot) then that blog/site has a duty to do everything it can to only publish things that are true. Otherwise you end up with the tabloid situation.<br /><br />With all that said, people will alwalys want the "circus and gladiators" stuff and probably always have. Personally, I just steer clear of the guff and only read sites where I trust the author to not lie to me. Or in some cases, not lie too badly (see http://www.theregister.co.uk)
captain.toad@gmail.com (Dave Lewis)
Saturday, September 16, 2006 6:26:34 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Comments are closed.