It still amazes me today that, as a "civilian" consumer, I have faster and deeper access to much more information than I did as a senior news producer at NBC Radio in the 1990s when I had many correspondents, bureaus, reporters and editors at my fingertips.
Just like you I also have access to an endless stream of useless or deceptive information on the Web, which is why we all use filters to separate the good from the bad. Some of my filters are the magazines, newspapers and networks I tend to trust by experience. But there is so much information out there that I also need trusted aggregators to scour for me, and one of these has been Google News. It's a site that bundles information, mostly from known sources that maintain standards for their content.
So I was surprised last month when a red herring of a headline popped up on my Google News feed. "1,000 People Live in Las Vegas Sewers," a questionable story of rampant suffering with a picture of a makeshift apartment somewhere underground. Sure enough, the story had originated with an Asian news service, and a quick search showed a very similar item from another questionable outlet a year older using the exact same picture. Other flunky news services picked up the story and a UK tabloid fluffed it up again. ABC had a short report that pushed the envelope but wasn't claiming any gaudy numbers. All the stories stemmed from a 2007 book by an author who claimed encounters, but no more than a handful.
Aha, I figured, here's a story about how standards are flagging for trusted aggregators like Google News and where that might leave us consumers. By instinct, I needed to confirm my story so I put in a call to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and eventually got to the proper liaison.
"Hello, I am a journalist writing a story and calling to confirm that there are not 1,000 people living in the sewers of your city," I cheerily asked the public relations spokesperson for the LVMPD.
"No," she said, "I don't know where that story or number came from." I was about to thank her and hang up when she added, "but there are more than 13,000 homeless people in Las Vegas."
13,000? How was I unaware of such a glaring statistic? It would have been plenty enough of a headline to catch my attention all by itself. In fact, she confirmed, as of the last count taken in 2009 there are 13,338 homeless in Las Vegas. Another count begins next month.
A little more digging would predict that about one-third of the adult homeless would be military veterans and reveal more about challenges of income, race, addiction, illness and other contributors. Once I got to poking around, I found that all these disturbing truths are out there and reputably confirmed, just not on Google News at the moment.
The lesson I took from this is that filters can't deliver all we want to know or should, and that the glut of information can obscure truths we'd otherwise seek out. I think I used to do a lot more exploring and contextual fact-finding before so much information was force-fed to me.
Filters channel what we, as individuals, tend to want to hear. That's scary in the reverse sense because had someone mentioned the topic of homeless in Las Vegas -- or anywhere -- before I talked to the LVMPD I probably would have said something dismissive about a bogus story I'd read from a fake news service looking to drum up traffic.
The sheer volume of factoids flying past our eyes is increasingly driving us into camps of instant hard belief or hard disbelief. The nuance or the real point is often lost in a story like this one when we don't have time to dig it out and understand it.
Now it's apparent that misinformation not only makes us less informed, but that "trusted misinformation" can make our decisions and actions much worse. There's obviously a lot going on in the world I cannot see but I think I need to reprioritize my filters.
The holidays are a reminder, but anytime is a good time to disconnect, look up and away from the facts on the screen and at the human condition of the people around us. Even if we are mostly self-absorbed, we can still find places to do a good deed or two. It took a red herring in my status quo of activity to make me stop and notice it, but it led me to see my good fortune and suggested a place to give back.
To all our friends and everyone else out there, during this season and throughout the year, all of us here at Information Management wish you the best.