The Public Citizen As Journalist – Who’s Literate, Who’s Not?

With vast resources available to writers, we should be the most literate journalists and authors in the universe. A few clicks and that political editorial, how-to article, that endless thesis on the endangered Iberian lynx can be completed in relative sonic time compared to previous generations. But are we too rushed or too lazy to research the validity of our sources?

A Dose of Baking Soda
Wikipedia can be and frequently is easily tampered with by anyone that chooses to do so. Granted, the search engines are a godsend; in seconds you’re on Mars. But their accountability ends there. In the Internet world of citizen writer, it’s the writer’s responsibility to be objective, to discriminate between the literate and the unqualified, as much as it behooves the reader to differentiate between the educated blogger and the uninformed blabbermouth.

Concurrently, there are the usual mainstream media with their honest errors, faux pas and deliberate lies all clamoring to break the story first. Do I use those same clicks and picks? Sometimes. They’re much too easy to ignore, but not without verification. If I want to be taken seriously, I have to forsake easy, take all information with a dose of sodium bicarbonate, and verify before signing my name. If you were writing a sci-fi story and you sent your protagonist back into 660 BCE Japan, the common way to find the name of the emperor of the period would be to ask dot com, maybe Wikipedia or Britannica. But they will lead you into a quagmire where history ends and mythology hints of an Empress who may never have existed. Or did she?

Young Samurai
When I was writing about medieval Japan, I hung out on a blog of young tigers. They knew every shogun family and Imperial era from the present to the mists of time. Anyone that presumed to know what they were talking about but didn’t, got mercilessly beheaded by these 21st century samurai. Accuracy and integrity are important to me so my research involves hunting down experts. Sometimes I’m fooled, but I do try. As part of his research, author James Michener spent his entire life traveling to places he wrote about; he needed to get it right, and he did. It was helpful that I had lived in Japan. I’d learned that hidden in a secret place within the walls of the Imperial Palace, which in itself is a secret place, are ancient historical records that no outsider has ever, nor ever will set eyes on. We can’t all be the constant traveler, but many good sources are available to writers.

The Untouchables
There are some dependable online sites I call my untouchables. They cannot be corrupted and I count on them for accuracy. ALPO, Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers is where amateur astronomers meet the pros, and wonks have fun, learn an enormous amount and share their knowledge. ALPO will take you anywhere you want to go in the universe, to any timeline (yes, you can bring your dog). The Asteroid 2001 RY47 will pass near the earth on the autumnal equinox, September 23rd of this year. If you journey to their website, scroll down to JPL Space Calendar and find the date, you can bring the graphic to life and see how the planets will line up. Mark your calendar and don’t forget to go outside and watch the show live. For a non-scientist like me, the Smithsonian/NASA Astrophysics Data system website ain’t bad either.

For plain old boring facts, the CIA World Fact Book site beats Britannica for depth and scope. Baseball writers can’t go wrong on the Baseball Almanac site; it’s a trip down memory lane, which when cross-referenced with Sporting News.com provides a rich cornucopia of American sports history. Point is there are a zillion reliable websites for discriminating authors, including respected online universities. But writers have to be willing to sacrifice fast and easy for proven fact. Dare I mention the old-fashioned public library?

Lack of Quality Assurance Didn’t Start With China
Should broadcast journalism require quality assurance? Nobody knows better than Dan Rather, an old pro who lost his job at CBS because he didn’t check the facts about President George W. Bush’s National Guard Service during the Vietnam War. Over at ABC, their 2006 production, “The Path To 9/11” was presented as an accurate historical representation of how America could’ a, should’ a grabbed Osama Bin Laden, but didn’t because President Bill Clinton was busy grabbing Monica Lewinsky. ABC’s producers presented as historical fact their own version of one of the most egregious events in American history. History is based on facts not on simplistic or biased views of events. But don’t accept what I just wrote. Historians are detectives and Det. Sgt. Friday accepted nothing but the facts.

In my next article Getting it Right or Don’t Write It, you’ll take a trip to a place you always wanted to go but didn’t have the bucks, a place where the truth was hidden from the world for centuries. In that sentence, I gave you a clue to the place.