Trusted Sources

Internet by Adam on 2005-09-29 01:15

As a kid, I read a massive amount of fiction. It was around the age of 10 that I started selecting my own books rather than just taking whatever my parents or teachers gave me. My first trip to the local library in this context was very memorable, and one part in particular stands out. I had selected a book, the first in the Edgar Rice Burroughs series of pulp fiction novels about John Carter of Mars. My mother paused when she saw its cover, which depicted nearly a nearly naked man holding a sword, an almost-as-naked woman cowering nearby, and a four-armed alien menacing them both.

She me asked something like, “Are you sure that’s a book worth reading?” I was taken aback by this. It had never even occurred to me that there would be books not worth reading available in the library. After all, it was the library! I said as much, to which she responded with a chuckle. “Honey,” she said, “just because something is in the library doesn’t mean it’s worth reading.”

Although the book did turn out to be worthwhile, the lesson of that conversation stuck with me. I had simply assumed that, by virtue of its placement in a library - presumably put there by librarians, the ultimate experts on books - it must be good quality reading. But librarians (or whomever makes the purchasing choices) are human, like anyone else. They make mistakes. They have questionable taste. They give in to pressure to carry material which may be popular now but in fact turn out to be just a momentary fad or craze, and which will look silly in historical retrospect.

Today this same lesson is being learned by all of humanity, through a different store of knowledge: the Internet.

Journalists, and everyone else involved in the professional news and literature industries, are anticipating their trade meeting the same fate as that of record labels. But unlike the recording companies, who are employing legal might in a vain attempt to preserve their dying industry, advocates of professional news media are taking the much more laudable approach of simply arguing against the encroachment of the new technology.

Their argument is this: on the Internet, quality is not assured. News sources there are biased, lack knowledge and perspective, or even basic grammar skills. There is no code of journalistic integrity. You cannot trust them.

This argument resonates with most people, and for good reason. It is completely correct. The flaw lies within in the unspoken assumption of this argument: that you can trust professional news media!

Does an article in a respectable newspaper or on a TV news channel have less bias, more balance, and better research than the average blog entry or website? You betcha! But because they are usually fairly accurate, most people make the same mistake I did as a kid at the library. It’s assumed that you can always trust the source implicitly, thus removing any possible critical thought about the information and conclusions delivered as the payload of the newspaper article or TV report.

Now that people are getting their news from decentralized sources which are frequently all kinds of nutty, I believe that there will be much greater awareness of the need to keep one’s mental guard up. This is true regardless of the professionalism, strong grammar, and previous track record (aka “trust”) of the source.

I for one am quite happy about this. A future in which people are even slightly more critical of the information they receive is sure to be a bright one.

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