How to Tell the Wheat from the Chaff On-line

The Internet has changed the way journalists do our jobs. You can find anything on the Internet – and that's the problem. There's plenty of useful information out there, but also plenty of misleading, erroneous, or simply useless information as well. How do you separate the wheat from the chaff? Knowing the difference is a challenge even to seasoned journalists.

One classic example is an article published by the Boston Globe on July 3, 2000, describing the horrible fates suffered by most signers of the Declaration of Independence. The primary source for that article as an e-mail that has been in circulation since at least 1995. The same e-mail was presented as fact by the late syndicated advice columnist Ann Landers.

That riveting account said that five of the Declaration's signers were captured by the British and tortured to death as traitors, while nine others died fighting the Revolutionary War. In fact, none of the signers were tortured by the British, and none died in the war (although two were injured). One signer who was supposed to have "died in poverty" actually became governor of Pennsylvania.

Because the Boston Globe writer didn't do enough homework, the paper wound up running a story that was almost entirely false.

The Internet is teeming with hoaxes and urban legends, including some aimed specifically at the Christian community. Every EPA member has probably seen e-mail claiming that the FCC is going to ban all Christian broadcasting, or that Procter & Gamble supports the church of Satan. These Christian urban legends are alive and well on the Web, waiting to snare unsuspecting Christian writers.

What's a journalist to do? Here are some tips for separating fact from fiction on the Internet:

What motivates the people who posted the information? Do they have an axe to grind? If so, there's a good chance that information supporting the author's viewpoint will be exaggerated, while information that contradicts that view will be minimized or absent. Is the site selling something? A good rule for any sales pitch is "let the buyer beware."

  1. How is the information presented? Typos and grammatical errors may indicate that the information comes from a less-than-reliable source. An abundance of CAPITAL LETTERS and exclamation points is also a giveaway that you might not have found an entirely reliable source.
  2. What are the author's credentials? Information from many respected authorities is available through the Internet. So is information from blithering idiots. If the author doesn't have credentials to lend credibility to the information, look for other sources of authority, such as an extensive bibliography.
  3. Is the site up-to-date? Look for a "last update" note on the main page of the site. Or check to see if the links are out-of-date – a clue that the page hasn't been updated lately.
  4. What do other sources say? If information from a single Web site flies in the face of other sources – even other Web sources – chances are pretty good that the site that's out-of-step is the one that's wrong. If five Web sites say C.S. Lewis was born in 1898 and only one says 1899, the smart money says 1898 is the right year.