Student guest post: Don’t forget to check facts online

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the second of those posts. Jessica Castro-Rappl is a third-year editing and graphic design student from Raleigh, North Carolina. Her interests include travel, baking and procrastination.

One of the great things about the Internet is that it gives us the capacity to spread information instantly. This also doubles as one of the not-so-great things about the Internet.

The velocity of information on the Internet leads to a race to publish news, and news outlets might sacrifice quality in order to quickly deliver information to readers.

This isn’t a new concept — a rush to publish has affected our field for years. But when information can be spread to a virtually unlimited audience with a couple of clicks, it’s important that that information be accurate.

And it can be tricky to make sure that your story is accurate! When an event happens and there isn’t a plethora of reliable sources and you’re working on a deadline, maybe you don’t have all the information you need before going to print.

But your first duty is to your readers, and that means giving them the highest-quality information you can offer.

A couple of weeks ago, a California man sent an elementary school into lockdown when he was spotted carrying what appeared to be a sawed-off shotgun.

That’s not how the story was reported, though. Online article titles read “Suspect who waved sawed-off shotgun near Otay Elementary in custody” or “Man receiving psychological evaluation wielding a sawed-off shotgun near school.”

The problem? The man wasn’t wielding a sawed-off shotgun. Police reported him as “possibly carrying a sawed-off shotgun.” In reality, it was a replica firearm.

The worst part to me, though, is that some of the stories that reported the gun was a replica were the same ones that put “sawed-off shotgun” in the headline. It’s unclear if the headline writer even read the whole article.

Even if you’re rushing to write an eye-catching headline, even if you’ve got to publish the story online as soon as possible and even if you’re working with limited sources, there is no excuse for providing your readers with misinformation.

Before style or grammar, editors (and writers!) should focus on fact-checking and source verification.

Then, maybe, we can take true advantage of the instantaneousness of the Internet, using it to deliver accurate information to readers — without them having to wait for the morning newspaper.