Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Caveat Lector

There was a commercial on a news radio station this morning hawking beds that they claimed had "received a five-star rating on the web." That was it. Just "on the web."

I chuckled imagining the bed-maker's mother had bestowed the five stars on her blog, but then recalled how quickly we panelists at last Friday's arts blogging discussion had more or less dismissed moderator Robin White's question about people who feel the blogosphere
has precious little credibility with regards to being factually accurate. (See Sharon Butler's response to Jerry Saltz's Facebook response to the panel; rumors are that James Kalm will be posting video of the event soon-ish).

Barry Hoggard replied to Robin's question with the two points that I also agree make that sensibility somewhat besides the point: 1) during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, for example and in particular, it became obvious how willing the so-called "trusted" news agencies were to just regurgitate the Bush administration's propaganda (thank you Judith Miller); and 2) most people who regularly read blogs read more than just one with the express purpose of doing so with a skeptical eye (not placing all their trust in any one news source) and forming their own opinions from a wide variety of sources.

Still, after hearing that radio commercial this morning and thinking through that there are two groups of people who are not necessarily approaching blogs in the second manner described above (adults who prefer the longer-standing media channels and have only heard a bit about the rising popularity of blogs and so dabble without enough skepticism, and children just now coming into their own with regards to seeking out information on the topics that interest them), I recalled how when I was a kid, it took me forever to wrap my brain around the notion that what I heard on the radio and TV might not be the whole truth. Surely anyone with the authority and power to put out information over public airwaves would have been vetted to ensure they were doing so honestly, no? "Vetted by whom?" becomes the obvious next question and why, despite actually believing in the ideals behind the Fairness Doctrine and other such efforts to keep media honest, I can't actually argue that they should be restored.

I have actually long subscribed to the admittedly cynical notion that all news is entertainment. Even my beloved New York Times reveals that to be true again and again. I have also long insisted that all blogs are entertainment as well, which is why I haven't felt that it's worth the effort to proscribe ethical standards to blogging, in particular. My thinking has been: Let each community that is drawn to a blog self-define and continually redefine the standards by which it operates. If the author offends or betrays his/her readers, he/she will pay in fewer hit counts. If a commenter doesn't live up to the community's standards of factual statements, let them be virtually stoned out of town until they learn better. On the other hand, if coming to a site just to hurl red meat at each other is the reason for a blog's popularity, well, so, let it be. The Internets are big enough to accommodate all kinds.

At least I felt that way until I considered someone with less familiarity than long-time readers of blogs encountering one of those sites and assuming that any blog with the authority and power to put out information over world wide web and attract tons of commenters must be publishing accurate information.
The truth of the matter is, there's no way to stop someone from incorrectly assuming something they read or heard or watched must be true. Moreover, the most useful, longest-lasting form of healthy skepticism may be one based on realizing you had been fabulously wrong about something you were confident you had the facts right on. Still, there is great potential for a wide berth of readers to be very sorry for their assumptions of accuracy.

Now I know bloggers who pride themselves on being as rigorous in presenting the facts and correcting any errors on their site as they were trained to be in journalism school. I believe those bloggers are generally rewarded for their efforts in attracting more devoted readers. The blogosphere is fairly sufficient in self-policing, and, for the time being anyway, credibility is actually more hard won on the Internets than it is in print. Few bloggers have institutions lending them theirs up front, the way new print journalists do.

In the end, though, the shopper's longtime adage holds true, no matter whether you're in the market for a bed or for information: beware. It's up to you to vet your sources.

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10 Comments:

Blogger kalm james said...

Yes Ed, the rumors are true I'll be posting excerpts at my facebook page shortly.

1/19/2010 09:28:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

The problem is not so much "It must be true if it appears on the web" as "It must be true if it appears on the web again and again." The web, for the most part, is an echo chamber. And using one web source to vet another is like comparing two counterfeit bills to determine which is real.

A blog like this one - with careful, original thinking - is the exception.

1/19/2010 10:04:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Way beyond blogging: Every year Edge has it's Annual Question and this year the question is "HOW IS THE INTERNET CHANGING THE WAY YOU THINK?"

Link to page 1 of the responses

Snippet from the intro by John Brockman
This year, I enlisted the aid of Hans Ulrich Obrist, Curator of the Serpentine Gallery in London, as well as the artist April Gornik, one of the early members of "The Reality Club" (the precursor to the online Edge) to help broaden the Edge conversation — or rather to bring it back to where it was in the late 80s/early 90s, when April gave a talk at a "Reality Club" meeting, and discussed the influence of chaos theory on her work, and when Benoit Mandelbrot showed up to discuss fractal theory and every artist in NYC wanted to be there

1/19/2010 11:00:00 AM  
Blogger Mery Lynn said...

For some, it is entertainment, For others, propaganda. For a few, it's a way of searching for a truth. All information should be perceived as coming from an unreliable narrator since viewpoints do skew how and what we see.

Good post.

1/19/2010 11:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Oriane Stender said...

I always found the term "New York Times best-seller" funny, because within the phrase itself is embedded the caveat that, perhaps by someone else's measure, on some other organization's list, the book is not a best-seller. It's a best-seller, or it's not, right? Wrong. All these lists are calculated differently. Which brings to mind the theory that you can use statistics to say anything you want to say.

1/19/2010 11:42:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

NYT Best Seller -- tells you the source of the statistic. Precise useful info IMHO.

1/19/2010 01:05:00 PM  
Blogger Mat said...

People already have their minds made up and read blogs that reinforce their opinion.

1/19/2010 02:06:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

As James Kalm mentioned in another post, you can rebrand anything, including big oil as "green" simply by changing color.

Identities, even national ones, change with time. The New York Times is a changin' - you can see it in its brand of digital content.

Did I just hear a cover of Forever Young on TV? Is Bob Dylan Rolling over in his grave or what?

I read in the New Yorker a theory that van Gogh had mental disease that all real MODERN artists have, where they put everything on a roll of the dice to the detriment of everything else.

Is TIno Segal the antidote to that? Or merely more Duchampian huckster-ism (I tend towards the latter).

The article mentioned VG's desire for community, something I noticed a lot of folks in school talking about but no one really followed up on it or at least no one wanted to buy a building for all their friends.

Jerry Saltz and others call these groups "mafias" and that's exactly what they are.

Blogging is not really a bricks and mortar thing though - so it makes me laugh when they have blogger talks. Newspaper people just go out for a drink or ten, or they used to.

This post sponsored by Verdana, the official blog font.

1/19/2010 05:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I despise the mattress industry! The various manufacturers make comparison shopping impossible by giving every major retail outlet separate lines that differ only in name and outer fabric. I discovered this through an online article on the subject that suggested I choose by lying on them(so amazing to discover that something that felt comfortable was, in fact, comfortable). Yes, the internet can direct one towards direct experience.

So nice to discover that what left me flummoxed had the same effect on others. This is particularly helpful in the infinitely more confusing art world. And sometimes, though rarely, I'm even sent in the proper direction.

Cathy

1/19/2010 07:49:00 PM  
Blogger CAP said...

The best thing about blogs is the comments threads.

1/19/2010 11:37:00 PM  

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