Sunday, March 18, 2012

Crap detector Part I: Credibility as business model




A digital news organization has to differentiate itself from the mass of online competitors vying for people's attention. The best way is to be credible, reliable and trustworthy. 

Credibility is the most valuable asset of a news organization. It  attracts a community whose members can collectively support the site with their resources as fans, recommenders, subscribers, advertisers, event attendees or customers.

Credibility is also harder to find online. You have to sift through a lot of garbage to find the nuggets of gold. Howard Rheingold describes this journalistic practice as crap detection and devotes a chapter to it in his book "Net Smart." 



“Don't refuse to believe; refuse to start out believing. Continue to pursue your investigation after you find an answer.” -- Howard Rheingold
Here are some of the basics steps to use in crap detection, according to Rheingold:

1. "Think skeptically, look for an author and then see what others say about an author."  Does the author provide sources for the information presented? Are those sources themselves credible with URLs that suggest some level of professionalism, such as those that end in .edu or .gov (not always 100 percent reliable but a good start)?

He recommends using the online tool whois.com, which allows you to see who the owner is of a domain name. He uses as an example the website martinlutherking.org, which would appear at first glance to be a project of the civil rights leader's family or supporters but which presents King in an unfavorable light. By using whois.com, you find that a white supremacy organization is behind this web page. 

2. Does the web page allow comments, feedback, communication with the publisher? Read the comments. Does it appear that anyone is monitoring this site? How recently has the material been updated? That might indicate that this website was merely slapped on the web and no one is home.

3. Have other websites linked to this page, and if so, who are the linkers? You can see who has linked by using the search term "link: http://...". That could give an indication of whether reliable, trustworthy websites find this information valuable.

4. Triangulate. Verify the information and the author's credibility from several different angles. If the person presents himself or herself as an academic, see if other academics refer to that work. If a website recommends performing laser eye surgery on yourself, see if any reputable medical group recommends it. 

5. Refine your search techniques. Search engines have many specialized tools that allow you to refine a search to a particular region, language and time period. You can search a particular site even if it lacks a search function by using the search command "site: http://...".  Here are some other search tips: Boolean search

6. Use Snopes.com, a website that debunks urban legends, to verify information. For political claims, the sites factcheck.org and factchecked.org can be useful.

You are never 100 percent sure but you can move the needle of credibility farther toward the trust stage with some of these techniques. 

And the best practice of all is to respond quickly and openly when you make mistakes. Transparency goes a long way toward establishing trust with the audience. And this has a commercial value for your organization as well as a journalistic value. 

Rheingold quotes Clay Shirky: "There's a spectrum of authority from 'good enough to settle a bar bet' to 'evidence to include in a dissertation defense'." 

Other resources for the determined detector of web crap:

The International Center for Journalists offers some guidelines on how to verify information on Twitter 









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