Wednesday, November 16, 2005


Why Bloggers Need Fact Checking

If you want others to take you seriously, then take yourself seriously.

Reading a post on another blog got me to thinking: why don't bloggers do a little fact checking?

Over at dangerous idea Victor said, "Here is a news release about the separation of church and state lawsuit concerning state sponsorship for reading Narnia in school." The headline on his post was "Now they're suing schools for reading Narnia."

Victor linked to a story on the Agape Press site that described a protest to the use of a Narnia book to promote reading in schools. The story strongly suggested a lawsuit was imminent, although it did not actually say a lawsuit was filed. Victor, in leaping to the conclusion that a lawsuit had been filed, read the story as intended by Agape but not as actually written. The Agape Press coverage would lead any reasonable person think the American Union for Separation of Church and State (AU) is a fringe group dedicated to misuse of the legal system to promote extreme and unreasonable views.

Always assume the best of people: check reports to the contrary.

If we begin with a position of mutual respect, then evidence of extremism must be treated with caution and skepticism.

In accord with that principle, I checked Google news for more details. In less than 45 seconds, I found a Court TV item covering the same story in much more depth. Turns out the AU wanted the state reading contest to include other books in addition to the Narnia book. This particular book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is often read as an allegorical retelling of the story of Jesus.

As it happened, that same morning I had heard NPR interview the author's stepson and heir. He said the book in question is not a re-telling of the Jesus story.

The point is not, however, to debate the meaning of this book. Rather, is the AU making a reasonable request? It would appear so, although this particular story has not finished playing out.

Don't go off half-cocked.

The meta-point (please indulge me) is that Victor went off half-cocked. Agape Press earns its living by stirring people up, so they had something to gain by telling only part of the story. Victor usually writes about epistemology, and does so very well. But by not doing any fact checking and venturing outside his area of expertise, Victor erred.

Of course, I make some big assumptions here. I assume Victor is a decent person who would never smear another person or group (like the AU) except through oversight or by mistake. I assume Victor would want to be fair in his writing. I assume Victor is interested in the whole story, not just what can be slanted for sensationalism. I assume Victor does not profit from distorting the truth or not reporting salient facts. I also assume that Victor would like to be taken seriously. Judging by the quality of his other writing, he deserves it from those of us who are interested in his subject. It follows that, if he wishes to be taken seriously, credibility

Use the Internet to Get Information.

Any blogger who wants to be taken seriously or is seeking an audience should worry about credibility. Anyone into blogging knows getting more information about a story of interest takes only a few keystrokes and seconds.

What's hard to understand is why so few bloggers take that one extra step.

All it takes to undermine your credibility is a single unfair, distorted, slanted, careless or error-ridden piece. All it takes to enhance your credibility or protect your reputation is a little extra effort.

Professional journalists employ fact checkers. They often use rules that prohibit publication without verification from two or more sources. Bloggers are obviously ill equipped to do the same. But bloggers, by definition, posses internet connections.

Of course, those who profit from distortion and half-truths are a different breed. That's the subject of a whole 'nother essay.

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