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
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.