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Authors and Responsible Writing: Just the Facts Ma’am!

Posted by Brittany Lavin on Thu, Sep 16, 2010 @ 11:19 AM

IP Correspondent, LinDee Rochelle, September 16, 2010:

Washington Post writer falls for Twitter hoax

By Michael Calderone; Wed Sep 8, 11:18 am ET

Last week, a Washington Post columnist started a Twitter hoax. This week, a Washington Post columnist fell for one.

How embarrassing for the Post, and how indicative of our new digital world

This recent article poses an interesting quandary for book authors seeking information, too, especially in nonfiction genres. (Although fiction authors also seek real-world information for background and authenticity reasons.)

We want to present true and verified facts in our writings, but facing a deadline or beleaguered by long hours, our common sense can lose to the ticking clock.

The Washington Post missteps point to the foibles of Twitter, but I have long opposed the Wiki sites for the very reason that it’s composed and edited by “Joe Blow,” and subject to the same type of mischievous misinformation. As a longtime magazine journalist, I was initially disdainful and leery of its pages.

We are not privy to know who it is that instigates the articles, or contributes the primary content. Much of it is not verified and even with admonitions of “… does not cite any references or resources …” or other warning and cry for help, the text is left available for viewing until someone with enough knowledge on the subject takes the time and initiative to add, reject, or revise, at will.

How long will it be and how many viewings will an erroneous page experience before someone realizes mistakes have been made? How many times will the incorrect information be repeated and re-sent around the world before its errant content is discovered?

We live in amazing times. So much more information is now available than ever before possible, about the most obscure subjects. Our technology is incredible—and yet we seem to have only thawed the tip of the digital iceberg. So much more is yet to come. And what will we do with it? Will we use it responsibly?

Information is currently in a strange dichotomy. It’s infuriatingly indelible when you’re trying to erase an embarrassing photo from the Internet, and frustratingly transient when you’re looking for that document that simply “disappeared” from your computer. But it’s the repetition that will get us into trouble. Our grapevines now stretch around the world—multiplied by the number of people who view our writings.

A disconcerting byproduct of this misinformation issue is the growing “oh well” attitude. Oops! I made a mistake. Oh well. Oops! He didn’t really go to Princeton, but I didn’t have time to verify it, or review other sources. Oh well.

Misinformation can now be sent many times over, in less than the blink of an eye. I guarantee, if it is a negative report about you, you won’t be saying, “Oh well.”

An old adage, “If you’re not going to do it right, don’t do it at all,” is appropriate here. As authors we have a responsibility to our readers to “get it right.” They could be reading the information for the first time, and you’re doing them a disservice—or worse, your reader could be someone who knows the truth, and make no mistake, you will be called on it. Save yourself the embarrassment. Check your facts.

Though I’ve come to cautiously appreciate the information the Wikis provide and realize their value, I can’t urge you enough to verify the information you plan to redistribute. Of course, this applies not only to Wikis, but all information you receive from any ambiguous source.

Honestly, I’m surprised the big-name journalists/news outlets are being duped. In the wake of our economy, have their fact-checker jobs been totally eliminated from their respective companies?

I’m disappointed. Though news sources have long been chided for inserting incorrect ages, or misquoting a source, we’ve generally been able to rely on the validity of their basic facts. Until now.

L’s Seven Suggestions – fact-checking your work:

1)if at all possible, go directly to the source, or related resource

2)for famous people: start with Wikipedia and work through the links and sources to verify accuracy

3)for world events: check the History Channel’s website

4)for community events: review your local newspaper archives or look for a city historical society

5)don’t forget the library – yes, you may actually need to leave your house to find accurate information

6)every industry, field, major sport, and area of interest has a historian; search online, then go directly to an expert for an interview (oh, go ahead―contact them―most of them don’t bite)

7)colleges and universities are a wealth of information … go back to school, if only for an hour of research

And for you young’uns who don’t get the title phrase, “Just the facts, ma’am!” here’s your Wikipedia link.

Rock on! … LinDee

-LinDee Rochelle

Tags: self publishing, self publishing companies, publishing industry

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