Writers Should Not Use the Internet as a Primary Source

The Internet is a tool, but not a primary source. From blogs to fiction to news articles writers should not use the Internet as primary source.

Writers Should Not Use the Internet as a Primary Source
“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." — Charles Spurgeon

There's no guarantee that information online is accurate or current. That's why writers and journalists should not use the Internet as a primary source. Bad and inaccurate information from websites is not a new thing. The Internet can be a fabulous tool, but it can not be the sole source of information for any writing — from blogs, to research for fiction to magazine or newspaper articles.

A story of deceit: an oldie but still a goodie

Anyone can create a website and fill it with text. Here's a dead-on example of what happens when writers get lazy, suck information out of a website, and spit it out as fact, never bothering to make a verification phone call or shoot an email to a primary source. What happens is that opportunistic writers who see the Internet as a primary source, even when it isn't, will pounce.

So here's the tale. Once upon a time, a guy decided to see if he could trap bloggers into repeating a false story. On an encyclopedic website (yes, that really big one I don't use), a student, Shane Fitzgerald of Dublin, posted bogus information about a well-known French movie music composer, Maurice Jarre.

Fitzgerald invented a quote and attributed it to Jarre, "One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die, there will be a final waltz playing in my head that only I can hear."

Deeply introspective, and Jarre could have said it. But, Unfortunately for some "professional" journalists, Jarre never uttered the words. Shortly after Fitz posted his prank, Jarre died.

The Internet as a primary source: bad idea

Fitz expected bloggers and social writers might pick up his fanciful attribution. But more than a few paid journalists needed filler for their pieces about Jarre's passing. So off they went to you-know-what-ipedia, looked the old fellow up, and cut and pasted Fitzgerald's pithy but fictional comment. Remember, anyone can edit or add to any article on those crowd-generated sites.

Yes, bloggers were all over the statement. It was deep, moving, and sensational. Fan sites grabbed it, but so did major newspapers and blogs in the United States, England, India, and elsewhere the world over. The quote appeared in Jarre's obituaries and articles. It was sometimes quoted verbatim and sometimes altered. But it was consistently attributed to Jarre as an exact quote. Oopsie.

The Internet as a primary source: half a hundred reasons why not

A fascinating piece by Kirk Chisholm, The Big List of 47 Famous Misquotes that Have Fooled You, might be all you need to know. It doesn't matter who said it or where you read it. As a writer, you must understand primary and secondary sources. A primary source is the horse's mouth.

It's the woman who was actually the first of her gender to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean or the man who discovered primordial galaxies. Assuming the source is your contemporary, you're obligated to find their phone number and dial them up. Or send an email. Or a text. You ask direct questions and receive direct answers, which you can quote without making any alterations, or you can paraphrase if you indicate that you paraphrased.

A secondary source is not the original. Secondary is a he-said or she-thought kind of source wherein someone heard, read, or interpreted their version of the original utterance or action. Maybe they witnessed the event from afar. Harvard says a secondary source is "created by someone who did not experience first-hand or participate in the events or conditions you're researching." Maybe it's a book. A letter. A media show or report.

Secondary is Wikipedia, a WaPo article, a third-party website, or someone who talked to someone who was involved. Secondary sourcing means the story has been retold. And that has to be made crystal clear when you write.

You can see how facts get diluted here, right? Did George Washington cut down the tree he allegedly took out? Nope. In a cartoon posted at ElectionCollege.com, we get an alternate myth. George may have cut down some trees in his early life, but someone thought the "I cannot tell a lie" thing was a cool story, so they told two people, and so on.

As a writer, you may choose to get your article or blog post leads from the Internet or a magazine or whatever. All good. But before you present a fact as a fact — whether you're a blogger, a Pulitzer winner, a stringer, a novelist, or a freelancer — you should verify the facts you present as facts. Go directly to the horse's mouth and get him to whinney at you. Obviously, primary sources can err. If they do, the fault is not yours; it's theirs.

Otherwise, no matter how right-on something sounds, you don't know anything for sure. Go ahead and print what you cull from websites, but say specifically, "I culled this from a website."

Do that, and you can call yourself a capable writer of blogs, stories, articles, or columns. Do less, and you don’t even deserve the pennies per article some writers settle for in today's markets. And that is one great reason writers and journalists should never rely on the Internet as a primary source.

Editor's Note: For journalists, ProfNet from PRNJ is a free database of medical, legal, and academic experts. They don't make qualifying as a journalist for their resource too difficult.

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