Published misinformation almost cost me my job once. I was 21. I was reporting campus news for my school paper. I did everything right. Or so I thought.
I have ventured into many different areas of writing as an adult, both as an aspiring writer and a writing professional. I have called myself a blogger; a journalist; a novelist; a freelancer; a person who likes to publish things on the internet.
One thing I have never been is accused of promoting false information – not directly, anyway. You could call it an obsession now, I suppose: Google is always open on my tablet. If I ever even begin to question something I have just written, I immediately fact-check. This is why I studied communications at the master’s level. I like to joke and say misinformation gives me hives. I’m not really exaggerating. The memory of being 21, and feeling like I’d messed up, remains.
Misinformation on the internet looks a lot to me like an infection. It has a collection of signs and symptoms many people ignore. It’s contagious. Once you contract it, it’s very hard to fight it off. But it can be prevented. Prevention is our best bet to avoiding things getting even worse.
I am a Facebook comment addict. People love to think they know it all, and can’t accept being proven wrong by people who are credentialed experts. I don’t really know why this is. But I think writers can play a role in preventing it.
All writers communicate. But not all of them communicate well. It’s just a fact we all have to live with. Since anyone can publish anything they want, you can’t always be sure what you’re reading is factual, unless you’re willing to do your own research. Many people aren’t. Because they don’t know how? Possibly. It can be hard to know what to look for, on fake news sites for example. People aren’t stupid – they just think they’re right. When you honestly don’t know you’re wrong, I suppose it’s not ENTIRELY your fault.
Part of the problem is on the writing side of the equation. You knew this was coming. The clearer and more detailed a writer is when they present information to an audience, the less likely members of that audience are to misinterpret facts. There will always be people who assume, who take things out of context, who accept only the information they want to know while ignoring the rest. But clear communication is essential, and often, pieces published online just fall short.
Why? I can only guess; I can only give my opinion, which is not factual, but still supported by my experience and expertise. I think most writers mean well. But as you likely already know, writers have a really hard time making good money. People aren’t willing to pay well for content, because doing something like running a website is expensive. They take what they can get. Sometimes what they can get for cheap just isn’t good. They rely on editors, maybe, to fact-check things before they get published, but trust me, they don’t get paid well either.
I’m not saying anyone who gets poor income for their work is going to do poor-quality work. But some people just want to publish content, and make money, and their first priority isn’t whether the information they’re publishing is fully accurate. Which IS stupid, but that’s how it works. There is an agenda – to publish; to get views; to sell papers. Sometimes, facts are missed.
I started working with a client once who told me not to worry about the quality of my articles: quantity was more important. They wanted me to pump out articles, basically. You better believe I made sure each one of those articles was as well-written and accurate as I could make them. That’s the kind of attitude all writers need to have. You need to make a commitment to only publishing information that is 100 percent true, no matter what anyone else asks you to do. No matter how anxious you are about getting something “out there.”
Are writers to blame for the so-called “misinformation epidemic?” It’s impossible to point fingers at only one branch of the publishing process. But I do believe writers are responsible for using their skills, their expertise, their experience, to prevent things from getting worse.
I was 21. I still wasn’t even sure if I would end up in journalism after I graduated. But when my section editor handed me an assignment in early September, I was ready. I was excited. I gathered all the information I could before the interview. I conducted one of the most pleasant, productive interviews of my “career” as a student journalist. I wrote one of the best pieces I had ever written, with an angle that made me proud. I sent it off to my editor, and I actually had the thought, “Wow. I could really do this for real.”
Looking back, I should have seen the red flags. I should have questioned why I was being asked to report on something the school had already done, dozens of times before. It wasn’t “news.” But it seemed so important, so big. I did everything I was supposed to do – except fact-check my section editor … something that never even crossed my mind.
Longer story shorter, it wasn’t my fault. The story that was published – and then re-published as its own corrections article as a campus-wide apology – wasn’t mine. My editor was wrong, changed (“rewrote”) my story to align with her assumptions, and still put my name on it. The person I’d interviewed for the story yelled at me. I complained to the paper’s editor-in-chief. I still felt bad about it. But I didn’t even realize what was happening. I was just doing what I was told. If she would have communicated with me … if I had paid more attention … it doesn’t matter at this point. All eyes were on filling that space in the paper, instead of focusing on the facts.
This is why I am so obsessed with checking facts. Because not enough people are paying attention. Mistakes happen, but when you don’t even realize you’re making a mistake, things get out of hand. You ignore the symptoms because you can’t see any reason why you might have been wrong. More and more people start to believe your claim is true – the illness spreads. The misinformation becomes fact.
This is why I tell you to always question everything; always double-check, always do things for the right reasons. Facts are the foundation of good writing. If you make mistakes, you have to be ready and willing to not only admit them, but suffer the consequences as well. When they say, “Write what you know,” they mean, “If you don’t know, look it up.” Be smart. Write only what you can back up with multiple sources. Help prevent more misinformation. Be part of something that truly matters.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.