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Net a window on the world, but not always the facts

By Leslie Cannold - posted Monday, 21 August 2006


It's enough to make you feel queasy. A recent Harris poll found that half the American public - up from 36 per cent last year - believe Iraq had weapons of mass destruction at the time of the US invasion. This despite the fact that the final report of the Iraq Survey Group - experts handpicked by the CIA and Pentagon - concluded that Iraq had no deployable chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in 2003, and had not produced any since 1991.

Who's to blame for the growing factual indifference of much of the American public? Some commentators - including the author of the Iraq Survey Group's report - have been quick to point the finger at the lack of editorial control exercised over much of the content of the World Wide Web.

"It would be a shame," said Charles Duelfer, "if one effect of the power of the Internet was to undermine any commonly agreed set of facts."

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Negative press about the power and reach of the internet is rare. Instead, we hear much about the democratisation of knowledge enabled by the capacity of any Tom, Dick and Dana to report news or offer their analysis of it through personal websites, blogs, forums or contributions to the proliferation of boutique news and opinion outlets such as Crikey! and On Line Opinion.

In some very important ways, net enthusiasts are right. The processes by which powerful editors in mainstream news organisations determine what will be spoken about - and by whom - lacks transparency and accountability, while the demand for high-powered credentials curtails the capacity of the average punter to be heard. By sheer weight of numbers, the proliferation of media outlets, personal websites, blogs and forums on the web offer punters the chance to move beyond passive consumption of the news towards an active role in shaping it.

But herein lies the rub. Peruse personal websites, blogs and the comment sections offered by mainstream and boutique news sites, and amid the sometimes insightful and occasionally amusing commentary are a significant number of contributions in contention for the totally-missed-the-point, played-the-person-not-the-ball, mono-rail-mind or axe-to-grind awards. On one Australian opinion site, a band of "forum participants" with masculine, often gladiatorial-sounding names, roam from one female-authored article to the next displaying both significant anger management and comprehension issues.

Further, despite names suggestive of a certain seriousness of purpose, many personal websites and blogs are little more than cyber-cliques where the initiated preach to the paranoid in a closed and unfalsifiable system of proof. "You're entitled to your own opinion, not your own facts," US senator Patrick Moynihan once noted. But if their recent "analysis" of a CNN presenter's concern about the results of the Harris poll is anything to go by, the folks at Newsbusters.org ("Exposing and Combating Liberal Media Bias") appear not to understand the distinction - crucial for any serious newsman or woman - between fact and value: "Dontcha love it when liberal media members are confounded by poll results that don't fit their view of the world? It drives them so batty that they suddenly start espousing all manner of absurd rationalisations they believe explain why so many Americans disagree with them."

I am not saying that the sort of hierarchical editorial processes traditionally exercised in newsrooms across the globe are the only ones that can achieve accurate, coherent, pointed and argumentatively rigorous content.

A recent peer-reviewed study in Nature found that Wikipedia science entries were nearly as accurate as those found in Encyclopedia Britannica (four errors per article versus three). This suggests that a group of enthusiasts and bone fide experts can debate as equals and eventually arrive at an agreed set of facts.

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While "Wiki" creation clearly involves more time and stress for content-creators than traditional editorial processes (collaboration always does), it offers readers distinct advantages. Perhaps most valuable is their exposure to the contested nature of some historical and scientific debates. Wikipedia entries on Freud and Holocaust Denial, for instance, alert readers to the controversial nature of the subject, and allow them to view the history of revisions to the existing text.

Of course, Wikipedia does not answer to the 24-hour news cycle, making similar collaborative processes inappropriate for many news organisations. Moreover, editing opinion and analysis in this way seems beside the point as, in many instances, the very existence of a blog or extensive forum participation indicates the topicality and disputed nature of the subject. What such contributions need is not the sort of transparent fact-checking process offered by Wikipedia, but a less visible cogency-verifying one that ensures "good enough" standards of grammar, diction, logic and pointedness - a.k.a. effective and respectful communication - are obtained.

This is unachievable, as any one who understands the vast, uncontrollable wilderness that is the World Wide Web knows. Personal websites and blogs are just that - personal - and the existing budgets of mainstream news organisations are likely to preclude the dedication of additional resources to monitoring dedicated spaces for readers post comments.

This is not to say that news organisations could and should not make clear to consumers the differing levels of editorial input they dedicate to different sections of their output. Forum readers might be informed that no quality control measures are applied to their content or those of other contributors, while those clicking through to the letters page of an online newspaper could be informed of the quality parameters used to select and edit correspondence.

Doing this may send a message to all Internet surfers about the relationship between the accuracy and communicative value of content, and different sorts of editorial input. While greater transparency and accountability are key areas for improvement, the editorial oversight exercised by mainstream news organisations needs to be recognised as exercising important quality control over what we see, hear and read everyday.

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First published in The Age on August 10, 2006.



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About the Author

Dr Leslie Cannold is a writer, columnist, ethicist and academic researcher. She is the author of the award-winning What, No Baby? and The Abortion Myth. Her historical novel The Book of Rachael was published in April by Text.

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