Online Sources Can Be Misleading

by March 26, 2019

It’s important to be careful when using online sources from social media and review sites like Amazon and Glassdoor. Here’s what to keep in mind. (Photo via Pixabay user geralt)

Online sources have become important in business journalism. Not sources in the sense of finding data somewhere or pouring through regulatory filings or a company’s website.

Instead, there’s an increase in the use of online voices as sources to include into articles. Maybe it’s embedding some social media messages into a story. Or looking at reviews on opinion sites.

You can see examples everywhere and may well have done similar things yourself. I certainly have. But it’s time to be more measured and careful, because the results can be problematic.

Take coverage of the Gillette #MeToo ad. One piece I saw kicked up criticism for the use of tweets from people who were presented as representative of particular viewpoint. And here we get into a necessary debate.

Person-in-the-street interviews are old as a concept. They can be fine if used well. But they may not be, even in shoe-leather reporting. Years ago there was some guy who was interviewed over and over again by different outlets and for different story topics because he’d go to some event incredibly early and be one of the first few people in line. When that happens, you no longer have regular people on the street. You have individuals who are promoting themselves for whatever reason and whose presence changes the dynamic of the interview.

Social media can be the same way. On Twitter, especially, only a small fraction of users post tweets. By definition, you no longer are finding people randomly. There’s even the chance that you’ll be hearing from a bit of automated software designed to seem human.

Reporters should know that trusting “user” reviews on a site like Amazon is tricky. You have no idea the number that are genuine or might be part of a PR campaign. But you may have seen stories that discuss the opinions employees might have of a company by checking a site like Glassdoor.

And here’s another problem, reported by the Wall Street Journal: companies find ways to boost their ratings. Frequently, the mechanism is that the company will enlist or possibly pressure employees to go on the site and say nice things.

The Journal look at posted data and found “more than 400 companies with unusually large single-month increases in reviews.” The changes were “disproportionately positive.”

Companies try to boost their ratings on Yelp or Amazon. There is no reason to think that they stop there. It’s like Amazon recruiting employees to say nice things about the company on social media. Except there the company was transparent. More often such efforts go out of the way to avoid having their campaigns recognized as such.

I’m not suggesting that reporters and editors completely eschew online sources. But you have to be careful when using them.