Guest column: Better safe than sorry

Bad information would get nowhere if only people would stop sharing it, writes Roger Plothow.

Stop sharing fake news. Now.

When you share unverified information on social networks, email or just in a conversation over the fence, you’re part of the problem. The people who create bad information can’t get anywhere if no one shares it. It’s sort of like the National Enquirer and similar gossip rags – they exist because people buy them.

We must commit to never, ever posting or sharing anything until we have verified its accuracy. This requires an effort well beyond just punching some words into Google, of course.

Many of us, for example, like the web site Goodreads, which includes book reviews and thousands of quotes by famous people. It seems harmless enough. The trouble is, many of the quotes on that site are either misattributed or altogether inaccurate. In fact, in some cases two or more people are credited for having said the same thing. Goodreads makes no effort to verify the quotes it posts. This is true of most other “famous quotations” web sites.

How can you tell? It’s pretty easy. If a quotation isn’t followed by specific information on where, when and by whom the words were spoken, including the source of that information (a recording, magazine, article, archive, etc.), it’s probably bogus.

Here’s another thing: If something seems too perfect, too funny, too coincidental to be true, odds are it never happened. Traffic stops for drunk driving in which the suspect easily quotes the alphabet backward before breaking into a dance – that’s bogus. President Obama holding a machine gun, smoking a cigarette and wearing a black beret – that’s bogus. Photoshop is easy to use, folks. Even I can do it.

So, when it comes to fact-checking, let’s start with the basics: healthy skepticism, common sense, a search for reliable sources and a wariness about posting or sharing information. That’ll go a long way.

You may ask whether there are news sources out there that infallibly provide accurate, complete and true information all the time. The answer, of course, is no. Journalism is like any other vocation – it’s done by human beings who fail, regardless of their commitment or skill, just like doctors, lawyers, teachers, musicians and athletes.

But a good place to start is to ask whether the organization – newspaper, television station or network, magazine, or web site – has a set of principles to which it can be held. Can you click on a tab on the web site, as you can at the Post Register, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal or nearly any daily newspaper, and read a code of ethics? The web site for the American Society of Newspaper Editors has a page of links to such statements of ethics for dozens of newspaper – go read them here:

If your chosen news sources don’t have such a statement easily available to all readers, you should be skeptical of information found there.

Roger Plothow is Editor and Publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a year-long series of weekly columns on news, journalism and information literacy.