Six honest serving men

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Article from Issue 218/2019
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I must admit I'm prone to writing about the Internet in this space. The Internet is a big place, and there is lots to cover. I often talk about privacy and the financial forces that are shaping Internet trends. Today, though, I'm moved to consider all the weird, creepy lies that clutter up Internet blogs and so-called "news" sites. It's not that I have a solution, but I still think I might have some insights that are worthy of 700 words.

Dear Reader,

I must admit I'm prone to writing about the Internet in this space. The Internet is a big place, and there is lots to cover. I often talk about privacy and the financial forces that are shaping Internet trends. Today, though, I'm moved to consider all the weird, creepy lies that clutter up Internet blogs and so-called "news" sites. It's not that I have a solution, but I still think I might have some insights that are worthy of 700 words.

Journalism was once built upon the foundation of what teachers used to call "the five Ws": who, what, when, where, and why. Another word, "how," which didn't make the list because it didn't start with W, is also important in some types of news stories. The whole collection is best summed up in a ditty by Imperial British author Rudyard Kipling:

I keep six honest serving men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.

The rest of the poem, which you can easily find online, is actually a bit more complicated and ambiguous than this pithy quatrain, but I won't go into it all, because this a welcome column, not an English essay. The point is that several generations of journalists who sought to practice their craft the right way have commandeered this passage for inspiration.

Careful attention to the five Ws, or to Kipling's 5W+H formulation, keeps a news story grounded and clear. But it often takes a lot of effort to trace down these details. The economies of our modern technology are such that many authors just don't bother. The result is that news stories have gotten a lot more vague. And the increased tolerance for vagueness among the readership is what gives conspiracy theorists and fake news artists a way into the reader's mind.

The classic "news analysts" you hear on cable networks just want to talk about "why" and "how" without bothering with the rest, and the result is that they harangue each other endlessly from separate universes because they have no shared understanding of the facts.

The classic conspiratorial tweet blurts out some dark pronouncement ("what") or singles out an individual for attack ("who") in a way that causes much more fear and over-reaction than if the author had taken the trouble to fill in the rest of the picture.

For instance, an angry headline might say that the US is being invaded by a rogue caravan of illegal immigrants streaming meth and mayhem in their wake, when a more studious approach that pays heed to Kipling's serving men would yield up something like the following:

  • What: a large group of around 5000 migrants heading north through Mexico
  • Who: men, women, and children
  • When: the latest wave left Honduras on October 12 with about 160 migrants – others have joined the caravan during the journey
  • Where: most are a thousand miles away from the US at this writing, although a splinter group of mostly LGBTQ refugees has reached the border and is preparing to ask for asylum.
  • Why: to escape poverty, discrimination, persecution, and gang violence
  • How: many are walking, and some are getting rides in slow-moving trucks

You could read all these facts and still have concerns about the migrant caravan. Responsible and well-meaning adults can have different opinions on what the situation means and what to do about it, but putting in the time to consider the details improves the quality of the picture, increasing the probability that the discussion will be based on facts and not on fear, anger, or personal mythology.

The high velocity and low overhead of the Internet means that no one is really watching to ensure that these important details, which are the backbone of professional journalism, are addressed before the post or tweet goes live, so it's up to you to be the editor of everything you read online. You need to ride with the five Ws and the six honest serving men whenever you log in.

But the vague, emotionally manipulative stories are only part of the problem. Also cluttering the landscape is a new kind of news story, pioneered by Russian trolls and enabled by morally absent western politicians, that offers up an official-looking presentation of this who-what-when-where-why information, but with so-called "facts" that are simply false (what we used to call lies). Some of these stories might actually look like real news stories, which makes them even more dangerous. In this case, you need to reach for another tool in the old-school journalism toolkit: look for additional, independent, corroborating sources.

Either way, keep the serving men close at hand: The Internet doesn't really eliminate the need for editorial oversight: it just offloads the responsibility from the publisher to you the reader.

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

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