Bad News

Howard Rheingold sees a critical need for critical thinking

They went looking for crap, and by golly they found plenty of it.

Students in Howard Rheingold’s journalism class at Stanford recently teamed up with NewsTrust, a nonprofit Web site that enables people to review and rate news articles for their level of quality, in a search for lousy journalism.

The students, along with other NewsTrust users, spent the last week of February engaged in the “News Hunt for Bad Journalism.” The idea was to highlight work that fell victim to poor sourcing, bias, inaccuracy, spin, or other journalistic lapses. Each day was dedicated to a different type of reporting, from straight news reports to opinion columns to the work by partisan media watchdogs like Media Research Center and fact-checkers such as PolitiFact. A listing of the least-trusted stories is here. Some of the news organizations that fell into their crosshairs include The New York Times, the New York Post, the Washington Times, The Nation, Reuters, and the Associated Press.

Much like the fact-checking program at the Tilburg School of Journalism in the Netherlands that I wrote about last year, the News Hunt is a way of getting young journalists to critically examine the work of professionals. For Rheingold, an influential writer and thinker about the online world and the man credited with coining the phrase “virtual community,” it’s all about teaching them “crap detection.”

Taking inspiration from a famous quote by Ernest Hemingway—”Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him”—last year Rheingold wrote an important essay about the topic for the San Francisco Chronicle’s Web site. Crap detection, which could be considered part of the family of skills that help ensure accuracy, is essential for journalists. And in this age of collaboration and citizen journalism, it’s also an important skill for members of the public.

“With the Internet we have so many people who are not traditional journalists breaking so many stories, so we have to face the fact that it’s no longer just people in the newsroom who are providing the first look at the news,” Rheingold told me. “And we need to improve their skills.”

He said a focus on information literacy is the “natural conclusion” to his long career of writing and teaching. What’s at stake is no less than the quality of the information available in our society, and our collective ability to evaluate its accuracy and value.

“Are we going to have a world filled with people who pass along urban legends and hoaxes?” Rheingold said, “or are people going to educate themselves about these tools [for crap detection] so we will have collective intelligence instead of misinformation, spam, urban legends, and hoaxes?”

Rheingold’s essay offers a variety of advice that, collectively, is a useful guide to verifying information online, be it in a Web site, tweet, or article. From his essay:

The answer to almost any question is available within seconds, courtesy of the invention that has altered how we discover knowledge - the search engine. Materializing answers from the air turns out to be the easy part - the part a machine can do. The real difficulty kicks in when you click down into your search results. At that point, it’s up to you to sort the accurate bits from the misinfo, disinfo, spam, scams, urban legends, and hoaxes.

Journalists often make mistakes because we fail to properly evaluate Web sources, or because we lack the skills to drill down into search results and find the best information. (That’s a skill possessed by news librarians, but many of them are losing their jobs.) When we fail to find the proper information online—or unwittingly advance a hoax—we pollute the information stream, and also open ourselves up to the ever-growing cadre of amateur fact-checkers. I previously called fact-checking “one of the great American pastimes of the Internet age.” But, as Rheingold noted, the opposite is also true: the manufacture and promotion of bullshit is endemic. One couldn’t exist without the other.

That makes Rheingold’s essay, his recent experiment with NewsTrust, and his wiki of online critical-thinking tools” essential reading for journalists. (He’s also writing a book about this topic.) The stakes, he said, are high.

“It relates to the individual and to the commons,” he says. “I believe if we want kids to succeed online, the biggest danger is not porn or predators—the biggest danger is them not being able to distinguish truth from carefully manufactured misinformation or bullshit.”

Correction of the Week

“An earlier version of this blog post said that Mr. Vangelakos touted taking out the garbage in the nude as a perk of living in an empty building. That was not correct. A different apartment dweller in California made that statement. We regret the error.” – Wall Street Journal

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Craig Silverman is the editor of and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of and a columnist for the Toronto Star.