Truth in media and personal responsibilities

Tom Smith at Information week notes some recent cases of libel in public media.

John Seigenthaler–who was assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the 1960s–was incorrectly identified on Wikipedia as having been viewed as potentially involved in the assassinations of John F. and Robert Kennedy. In his own words, Seigenthaler provided a wrenching account of the pain this caused him. …

Much as I feel for Seigenthaler and others who’ve been burned by malicious individuals or factual inaccuracies through wikis, I also recognize and clearly see the power of reader-submitted content on Web sites. It’s a trend that’s not going to go away, any more than blogs will go away, despite the best efforts of Forbes magazine. The trend is somewhat problematic for the publishing business, given our training in fact checking and taking extensive measures to make sure content is bulletproof. Wikis today have no analogous methodology for prepublication review and analysis.

One problem, of course, is the hubris in claiming “our training in fact checking and taking extensive measures to make sure content is bulletproof” in light of the many recent examples to the contrary in major media. At least the major media is not anonymous and this is key to accountability.

In personal electronic media, such as the wiki cited or weblogs or email, it is possible to cast libel and remain anonymous. In some egregious cases, this anonimity has been broken but in many cases irresponsible rhetoric has been promulgated without any accountability.

In the past, psuedonyms have been used to protect authors. The need for such protection can be seen in the situations faced by authors who have dared criticize certain aspects of the Muslim religion.

But there is also a need to refute and reveal slander and libel. Part of this is in the reader being held to account for his source of information and proper qualification of his sources. Another part is that of holding those who claim a profession of reporting to intellectual integrity. A third part is that of holding representatives and political leaders to account for their assertions and statements.

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