Few would dispute that the internet is a communication medium of awesome (in the old sense of the word) proportions. Many would recognize the internet's tendency to function as a massive echo chamber. Interesting stories are picked up and relayed from point to point, and blog to blog, at breakneck speeds, often with bloggers relying on other blogs as their primary sources.
Sometimes a little bit is lost in the frenzy of the internet news cycle. For example, the old journalistic impulse to trace information back to its point of origin, and to verify facts for oneself.
In the January 17 edition of eSkeptic, the email newsletter of the Skeptics Society, Skeptic editor Michael Shermer tells of an internet phenomenon that got out of hand.
The previous week, eSkeptic had run news that it obtained from a press release by a group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The PEER release claimed that Park Service employees at Grand Canyon National Park were being officially prohibited from answering questions regarding the geologic age of the Canyon. These strictures, according to PEER, represented a Bush administration attempt to muzzle scientific views that are incompatible with the letter of Christian scripture.
Only problem? The PEER press release turned out not to be true--as Shermer and the Skeptic staff found after comments from readers prompted them to fact-check the release by telephoning NPS employees at the Canyon.
Writers Shermer in the January 17 eSkeptic:
I apologize to all of our readers for not fact checking this story before publishing it on eSkeptic and www.skeptic.com. Shame on us. But shame on you too, Mr. Ruch, and shame on PEER, for this egregious display of poor judgment and unethical behavior.
His piece is called "Fact Checking 101: How Skeptic magazine was Duped by an Environmental Activist Group," and I recommend reading the whole thing.
In many respects, the blogosphere is more like an op-ed page than the front section of a newspaper. But if pundits are to editorialize meaninfgully about stories, they must have the facts of those stories straight.
Sometimes the best course of action is to pick up the phone, reach out of the echo chamber, and find the truth that lies on the ground. Sound journalistic practices don't become less relevant in the age of the web.
Bravo to Michael Shermer and his team for calling our attention to that.