I remember returning to the office from my first few assignments as a rookie reporter, real excited, and eager to write about my "news-breaking" information.
"They said this is the world's first technology able to do that...world's first!" I would exclaim, wide-eyed. But, of course, my senior colleagues, seasoned IT journalists that they were, would calm me down and patiently describe the inner-workings of PR machines in the business community.
These tech companies weren't exactly dishing out lies to the media. They were just, well, let's just say they were extremely passionate and super enthusiastic about their company's products.
So, by and by, I learnt to sieve out the marketing fluff and zoom in on the essential news points. That's perhaps why journalists are commonly perceived to be cynics... We tend to take everything we're told with a pinch, a very big pinch, of salt. Otherwise, we'll end up being a company's marketing mouthpiece.
But, with the advent of the Internet, it's become tougher to identify the bare essential facts from the massive amount of data that is manufactured and made available to anyone, anywhere. In fact, pardon the pun, it's increasingly difficult to differentiate between fiction and non-fiction, thanks in large to the World Wide Web of information overload.
In April 2001, a survey that polled over 500 print and broadcast journalists found that media professionals lacked Web "street smarts". The study noted that most reporters use e-mail and the Internet to hunt down stories and sources, but lacked the know-how to adopt such tools efficiently.
"Many don't know how easy it is for people to fake an ID in chat room, newsgroup or e-mail," said Steve Ross, the study's co-author. "While most of those we talked to said they didn't actively use those forums, many of them said they would report rumors from them."
The emergence of bloggers, as well as the accelerated pace driven by the Internet, have made a reporter's job tougher because her deadlines have now shrunk from days to hours, and now mere minutes. This time pressure leaves little room to do the necessary legwork to verify all sources and facts.
Not surprisingly, it's only a matter of time before even established media houses would be waylaid into publishing falsehoods as facts.
Last month, an Irish student posted a fake quote on Wikipedia and attributed it to a French composer who had recently passed on. The student explained that he did it to test the media's stance on observing accuracy and accountability, particularly in an era where everyone has instant access to news. Several newspapers, Web sites and blogs in the U.S., U.K, Australia and India, lifted the fabricated quote and published it as fact.
It's indeed troubling to see how easy the Internet has allowed people to meld fiction and fact, but it's a reality that not only journalists will increasingly have to deal with.
Take music downloads, for instance. It has become so commonplace that it's very likely some children are no longer aware it's not always legal to simply download music off the Web. It's difficult for their young minds to grasp the concept of intellectual property, and they can't understand why anyone will want to walk to the music shop to buy a CD when they can simply get it off the Web from the comfort of their home, for free.
It's easy to forget how much content is worth when it's so readily and massively available. After all, scarcity is the reason why diamonds and fuel are expensive, isn't it?
Thanks to modern technology, the value of content has been somewhat mislaid. Unfortunately, or not, it's not always something that's avoidable. As society progresses and evolves, we have to take the cons along with the pros.
Ultimately, it boils down to education and awareness. Journalists need to learn to identify trustworthy sources amid the Web-created noise, and parents must guide their young ones and help them differentiate between right and wrong--though the definition of which may, erm, sometimes vary.