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Don’t be hoodwinked: Detect online errors with savvy skepticism

craig silverman

Craig Silverman leads a session during the American Copy Editors Society 2012 Conference.

Craig Silverman’s “B.S. Detection for Digital Content” session led copy editors through the possible pitfalls for relying on online information and provided advice for how to avoid them.

Journalists who are hoodwinked by misinformation spreading around the Internet often end up circulating errors that they have a hard time correcting, said Silverman, founder of Regret The Error blog, now published by the Poynter Institute. The session was held on April 13 during the American Copy Editors Society’s 2012 Conference in New Orleans.

“You have to evaluate the source and you have to evaluate the information,” Silverman said.

The rapid pace of Tweeting, Facebooking and other online activities results in a constant flow of information. It’s difficult for journalists to quickly distinguish fact from fiction, but Silverman offers several tips on verifying  information before spreading it.

First, and perhaps most importantly, according to Sliverman, is to continue to talk to people. Contacting your sources outside of the online world helps reporters establish if they are credible.

Reporters should take extra caution when retweeting information they’re skeptical about, because follow-up Tweets to correct errors are rarely circulated as heavily as the original Tweets, he said.

Look at who your sources are engaging. On Twitter, see who is following them and who they are following. What information are they retweeting and which sources are retweeting them? On Facebook, who are their friends? Do they seem credible?

Journalists can look at a source’s Klout score, which is a score that aims to establish an area of expertise from online information. Klout, a San Francisco-based company, scrapes social network data and tries to measure a user’s influence by assigning a score from 1 to 100 based on engagement level.

Google a Twitter user’s handle with the word “spam” or “scam.” Or download the Identify feature in Firefox or the HoverMe feature in Chrome to check for other accounts or other postings online. Those features will help reporters follow an online trail, which can give more clues to a source’s credibility.

If you can’t talk to your online sources directly, try Skype or direct messaging. Look at how other established media outlets are reporting the information that caught your attention. And try crowdsourcing by asking your followers about a rumor.

“To be a part of these networks, you have to be present,” Silverman said.

If you’re skeptical of a website, run its domain name through a search on who.is, which will reveal the registrar, the registration date and the expiration date. You can check whether a business that is claiming to be a long-time establishment only registered its domain name recently.

And check the website through Google’s page-rank checker, which is meant to be a tool for advertisers but can help journalists check credibility. Use Diigo and Delicious to see if anyone has bookmarked the page. Does the website have life through recent blog posts and current articles?

“These are all little puzzle pieces you’re going to have to put together,” Silverman said. “Journalists can make a greater effort to check their facts.”

About the Author

Rebecca L. McClay is managing editor of www.creditunions.com and a contributor to Trefis, a financial analysis website. She recently interned for MarketWatch in San Francisco and Bloomberg in New York and was previously a business writer at The Gazette of Business & Politics in Maryland. She has been published in The Arizona Republic, The Wall Street Journal, The Baltimore Sun and more. Rebecca has been contributing articles to businessjournalism.org since 2009.

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