A lesson on Internet news


by Frances Edstrom

Last week Winonans had a great opportunity to learn for themselves the pitfalls inherent in that great technological tool, the Internet.

Last Monday, a news item was posted to a website, edited by WSU Mass Communications professor John Vivian, announcing that a local grocery store was going to close.

It is not true.

Here begins the lesson.

"Someone" notified the Chamber of Commerce that the item had appeared on that website. The Finance Director at the Chamber went to the website, copied the item, and e-mailed the copy to the Chamber board of directors. Some (or more likely all) of those people in some way shared the news, either via e-mail or voice.

Oh, it is so easy, isn't it, to forward an e-mail to one person, or even a huge number of people. All it takes is one finger to click on that mouse, and there it is, gone and irretrievable. If the original message is blatantly false, you have just broadcast the lie to the world.

We enjoy freedom of the press. But that is not to say that the press is free to say whatever it wants. The free press is governed by its own code of ethics, and libel laws that hold it responsible in the courts to make sure that what is said or written is the truth.

The Internet has taken most people by surprise. We are trained to believe, in a general way, what we read in the mainstream press, and are apt to accept Internet news with the same degree of trust.

We must train ourselves differently now. Anyone can say anything on the Internet, regardless of what is true or real, so we must learn to be more discerning.

People could be forgiven for thinking that a website run by a university professor of journalism should be trustworthy. I suppose people could also be forgiven for taking as fact a business story that came from the Chamber of Commerce.

But obviously that did not apply in this case. What are the clues that should have been a tip-off that this news story about Econofoods was bogus?

The fact that the news item didn't have a byline, wasn't credited to an author, is never a good sign. Especially on the Internet, anyone with access to the site can post an item without scrutiny. The story did not name a source for news of a major store closing, which is not how big corporations do business. If the news were true, it would have been carefully worded and sent out by a company spokesperson, who would most assuredly spell the name of the corporation correctly. At the very least, a local source should always be named as the person from whom the news was received.

Even if a news item has been signed and attributed, before disseminating news that would have such an impact on so many people locally, it should always be checked out. A simple call to the local store to verify the news would have avoided the damage done to the store, its employees, and its customers. At the very least, passing on such information should be prefaced with a "this can't be verified," or "this came from a student website."

End of hard lesson learned too late.

Except for this: neither of the parties, supposedly professionals in their fields and who originally broadcast this lie, took any personal responsibility for doing so. Not even an apology.

It took a while, but the story finally disappeared from the website. In its place, this appeared, unsigned and unattributed, under the headline "Story wrong on grocery closing:"

"WINONA, Minn., March 16, 2004 -- A news item on the CyberIndee on Monday reported inaccurately that Nash Finch, a Twin Cities-based grocery chain, was closing its Econofoods store in Winona. John Vivian, who edits the CyberIndee site, said the erroneous report was removed from the news site's archives. The story, he said, originated with an employee, who even provided a date for the closing. The information, Vivian said, should have been further checked. A Nash Finch spokesperson said there are no plans to close the store."

And from the Chamber came this: "It has come to our attention that an e-mail is in circulation with inaccurate information stating Econo Foods is closing. Chamber Staff has confirmed with Manager of Econo Foods, Carl Nass, that Econo Foods is not closing and information released on an Independent News site is incorrect.

"This is an unfortunate incident that resulted from an internal Chamber e-mail being forwarded and altered. Please verify that e-mail posing as a Chamber of Commerce communication has come directly from a Chamber of Commerce employee and not as a forwarded e-mail."

E-mails posing?


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