How Reliable is Free Online Content?

Is paid content more valuable – and more reliable – than free content?

This is an important question in light of Pew Research’s recent survey that most Americans now get their news online.  There’s no doubt that there is plenty of free material available on the Internet that is reliable.  Newspapers, including the New York Times and USA Today, post their articles online for free (at least for the time being).  The same goes for most magazines – from TIME and Newsweek to Sports Illustrated to Forbes.

But is this really free content?  I’d argue that the online properties of offline publications aren’t truly offering “free” content.  It is subsidized content.  In other words, it is paid content that is being given away.  As I’ve argued before – free isn’t a good business model for journalism and I don’t believe the current state of “free” for newspapers and magazines is sustainable.

So for the time being let’s remove newspapers, magazines and other subsidized content from the argument (I’d also include here the online web sites for TV and cable stations and radio stations).

That creates a big hole in the reliability of online content as many of the remaining “free” sources of content use the subsidized content as the basis for their own content – think about news aggregators like, Google News, Reddit, All Top and even Facebook.  But even most bloggers don’t do actual reporting – they rely on news services to do that for them – and then comment on or add to the reporting.

That said there are other reliable sources of free online content. For the most part, you can get reliable information from Wikipedia.  There are also many free blogs by citizen journalists and experts (including this one, I hope) that provide – if not original information – then good analysis and reasoned opinions based on good, reliable sources.

If you look at the graphic above – those sources are in the middle.  Those are the “Facts.”  Sources of free information online that have processes in place to check, double check, and publish information that is based on facts.  In my opinion, those online sources are smaller than we think (especially when we do not including subsidized content).  They are also being squeezed from the left and the right by “Spin” and by “Deceit.”

What is “Spin” (a word my peers in PR generally hate)?

Spin is content generated by any source that has an agenda – political parties, non-profit organizations, corporations, activists, political action committees, trade associations, unions, and even branches of the government.  Spin isn’t necessarily “untruth” and, in fact, good spin uses reliable information to make its case.  When you get a bit of information from a friend it probably contains some of their spin – unintentional most of the time, but filtered through their own experiences and biases.

That’s the problem with Spin.  It is guilty of sometimes ignoring facts that contradict or weaken its arguments.  In other words, Spin can of cherry pick facts to make its case.  So consumers of online content need to be able to recognize Spin and read it with a healthy amount of skepticism.  Consumers also need to educate themselves in identifying the sources of information that they are reading.

For example, if you’re reading a blog post on various tips for removing grass stains from clothing and its written by a laundry detergent manufacturer then the information is most definitely Spin, but probably very reliable Spin.  After all, the detergent manufacturer is probably an expert on this topic. But if this same company is writing a post about the benefits of corporate tax cuts for detergent manufacturers – then, well, the information might not be as reliable.

Deceit is outright lies or misinformation either by design or from ignorance.  An example of purposeful deceit are the web sites and blogs that promote the Holocaust as an elaborate hoax and not a historical truth.  There are other web sites that promote deceit, but do so out of ignorance rather than on purpose.  An example of this could be actress Jenny McCarthy who promotes that childhood vaccinations cause autism in children despite the lack of any scientific evidence to back up her claims.

So with so much Spin and Deceit online – how reliable is free content?  Can it be trusted as much as paid or subsidized content?  Is information on the Internet only reliable because of the presence of paid and subsidized content?  Is there a way to improve the quality of free content?  Or does the old adage: “Buyer Beware” take on a new meaning online?

And, lastly, is the easy availability of Spin and Deceit online responsible for the state of misinformation we find ourselves in today?

Lots of questions, I know, but I’d be interested in listening to your opinions about this topic.

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22 Responses to “How Reliable is Free Online Content?”

  1. Leigh Anne Vrabel March 2, 2010 at 10:49 am

    Wikipedia is only as good as the hive mind chooses to make it. Some people have lavished a lot of care on it, cited their sources, and so on, and actually made it a reputable place to start research. Other pages are pure dreck.

    The best online content isn’t “free” either, but it’s free to the people with a library card. Libraries purchase subscription databases that have credible, reputable information from publishers with a good reputation, and make that info freely available to their cardholders. And library cards are still free.

    I’ll take an encyclopedia article from a subscription database over Wikipedia any day.

    To be fair, though, the best free online content for people doing medical research is Medline

    A project of the National Library of Medicine, this is THE clearinghouse for reputable medical information. Every time I walk past a computer and see somebody researching their illness on Wikipedia, I interrupt and direct them here.

    Proud to be a librarian in the digital age,

    Leigh Anne

  2. Hi Leigh:
    Great points on the availability of “free” materials and sources at our libraries. But we could argue that libraries are, in fact, subsidized content as our tax dollars pay for it. Thanks for commenting!

  3. It seems to me that no matter how you slice it, there’s a lack of responsible journalism these days, as journalists aren’t spending near enough time checking facts. So perhaps it’s not necessarily an issue of paid vs. free, but rather ethics, or maybe simply lack of time. But I could EAISLY be wrong!

  4. Are you using free online information (Pew) for the basis of this post? 😉

    Wikipedia may be fine to quote when speaking with friends, but “reliable” should not be used as an adjective for Wikipedia–even with qualifiers, such as “for the most part”. Wikipedia is only as reliable as the person writing the information. How many blunders has Wikipedia had in the past?

    I like the graphic.

  5. Thanks, Wade.

    Yes, I did use free online content from Pew! Good catch…

    I think I read somewhere – it has been awhile – that the content on Wikipedia was just as reliable as published encyclopedias. I’ll have to check.

    I also believe that most Wikipedia articles are NOT written by one person, but by many. Thanks for the input!

  6. It seems to me that no matter how you slice it, theres a lack of responsible journalism these days, as journalists arent spending near enough time checking facts. So perhaps its not necessarily an issue of paid vs. free, but rather ethics, or maybe simply lack of time. But I could EAISLY be wrong!

  7. There is the philosophical idea that nothing can be a “truth” because all matters of “fact” or interpretations of reality are blurred by the perceptions of those who report the “facts”. The collective of input from all parties bring us closer to a “truth”, but this can never be tested (other than statistically) because nobody has any idea of what the benchmark is or is not that the perceived truth is to be tested against. It’s been years since I studied philosophy, so I might be talking out of arse.

    Separately, what is the basis for believing that money can buy more reliable information? Free or paid doesn’t make any difference on the ability of an organisation or a person to present accurate facts, the only differences to the situation may be the dedication of the reporter (for income) and the illusion of the buyer (believing paid content has inherently higher reliability).

  8. I personally like Wikipedia, but my professors do not credit this as a reliable source…

  9. When I was last in college (2009) it was still a policy that use of Wiki as a source was unacceptable on any term paper. As others have pointed out, some of it is good, sourced, precise, and some of it is flat wrong, with bad dates or incorrect sourcing.

    If paid content is more reliable, what about cable TV, which is paid for by subscribers? That’s 80% spin, except for channels like C-Span.

    Pew has a spin too, as do Rand and other research orgs. It’s hard to determine validity for ANY content, free or paid. I tend to think everything that isn’t peer-reviewed must be evaluated as opinion.

  10. Hi Uloae:
    Great point about my use of paid and free and my distinction that paid means increased quality and reliability. Allow me to elaborate a bit.

    I’m a former journalist – so that was my bias showing. I’m linking “paid” with professional and expert. News reporters and editors are trained on how to interview, research, report and write unbiased news stories (and are paid to do so).

    Of course, I agree that there is no way for a professional journalist to be completely be unbiased, but at least the effort to be unbiased is the goal of journalism. At the root, journalism strives to achieve truth through their reports.

    When I say “free” – I generally mean untrained or inexperienced people providing the content (and, yes, I know I’m using broad strokes here and there will be huge exceptions to this) or professionals paid to create biased content.

    In either case there is no expectation or driving ethic to provide unbiased content.

    Excellent observation! Thanks.

    Hi Invisible Mikey:
    There is no doubt that some of the new journalism out there – most notably places like FOX-News and MSNBC – don’t strive for unbiased content – in fact quite the contrary.

    Every content provider has an agenda and it is important for all of us to understand that agenda and consume our content with a healthy dose of skepticism.

  11. Great, great post George. I think you clearly hit on many of the same themes I consider when I think about an discuss “citizen journalism” but from a completely different angle. There is better value from paid/subsidized content as there are processes on place to combat the spin/deceipt paradigm you lay out. Nice sound logic and explanation here.

  12. As a journalism student preparing to graduate this May, I have to say that these issues aren’t totally ignored. The sad thing is, the school I’m at is slow to catch on to the debate between online content and printed content. Much of our training is in the basic reporting and interviewing, which is okay, but in my case, I’ve learned how to design for print — not much about working with the web. The only students who really learn that are “convergence” students — and that’s the most difficult sequence to get into.

    I’m in the “strategic communication” sequence, and even here I’ve received little training about how to use the web to my advantage. As a hopeful advertiser, I find it troubling just how little the schools are doing to prepare fledgling journalists to deal with “free” online content. In fact, much of the mentality is that whatever is published online isn’t really valid at all unless it has a “stamp” of approval, such as a famous news logo attached to it.

    Personally, I think blogs contribute to the conversation because they provide even more opinions on stories and topics — it’s just in a faster, more accessible manner than traditional journalism. I learned, even way back in my junior year of high school when I first started interviewing, that it’s important to get a variety of opinions on a topic, to counter the “factual” sources. Blogs for the most part fulfill this function, at least in my opinion, because it gives those opinions a voice that might otherwise have gone unheard.

    All in all, I think journalists, and journalism schools especially, need to adjust and embrace the Internet much more than they have. Just having a Facebook account isn’t going to cut it; they need to realize that the Internet is in some ways becoming the new “town forum” for ideas. I know that’s been said before, but as I get more involved with online promotion through my Online Audience Development class, I see that this new forum of ideas is possibly even more powerful than many of us imagined.

    I think you raise some great points about Spin vs. Deceit, which I’d never thought about before. I’d always learned that journalists served as “gatekeepers” of this kind of information, helping the public to decipher what is true and valid, and what is junk. I definitely see bias in the news today, and I can see where people would questions the validity of info found online because there is no real way to check a blogger’s facts unless they provide them. I think journalists definitely need to adapt to this and put aside their biases (for money’s sake, in my opinion) and work to weed out the spin and deceit. It’s what they used to do, in the olden days of traditional print; why can’t they learn to do it now with the Internet?

    Then again, I’m just a fresh, idealistic journalism-trained advertiser. What do I know? Ha ha.

  13. I believe at the end of the day the reader has to search out the truth for themselves from different sources because even news network can’t be relied on to present the truth.

  14. The old adage “you get what you pay for” is, and isn’t true when it comes to free content. But you do have to take things with a grain of salt.

    That said, today’s journalists (paid) are required to put information out to the world so quickly that facts may get slightly lost in the process. Hopefully not the case, but, it’s a race-the-clock mentality (twitter may get there first, but unreliably).

    One advantage to PRINT was that reporting leadtimes, however pressed, still required (and allowed for) fact checking. That doesn’t mean that facts cannot be misinterpreted (they are, all the time – hello, political polling?) – but – professionals staked their integrity and reputations on the accuracy of their facts. Not to mention, their jobs were on the line.

    Not so for free content.

    Always an interesting topic. Enjoyed this post.

  15. Wikipedia is a credible source and acceptable in scholarly work when cross referenced against other sources. No single source is credible on its own unless that source has itself cited multiple sources itself.

  16. Hi Lauren:
    I’m just happy that there are still people being trained in journalism. I think the skills one learns in journalism are going to become more important as companies and organizations start to transform their communications and marketing functions into publishing arms.

    Thanks for reading!

    Hi Pt4themind:
    While I understand what you are saying about each person needing to ferret out the truth – that’s asking a lot. We need standards – especially for content around news. And believe it or not – there is truth and it is up to journalists to try and find it.

    Hi BigLittleWolf:
    The 24/7 news cycle has indeed made it more difficult on journalists to get facts straight. It would be interesting to know if the Internet has resulted in more corrections and clarifications of news stories. But as the old adage goes: Newspapers are the first draft of history. And first drafts always have errors.

  17. Hi Kelby:
    Thanks for the kudos. I appreciate it!

  18. Thanks for the clarification, George.

  19. There are pros and cons. With free online content, at least we are conveniently exposed to different points of views, references… Anyone with internet access can get answers to questions that would otherwise go unknown.
    Is the occasional falsehood bad enough to stain the wikipedias of the net?

  20. Hi Anonymous:
    I guess that depends on the size and magnitude of the falsehood.


  1. The State of Online Content « Bitch Wants Tea - March 4, 2010

    […] doesn’t think so. […]

  2. Digital Maoism « The Brookhaven Bear Report - March 6, 2010

    […] Now, of course, having such a problem textbook can be easily remedied by just culling out all the too white and too male stuff and putting in your own ideas.  Nice in one way, but kind of tough on those who spent their lives studying a subject and trying to bring coherence out of the confusion.  It is also reasonable to question the accuracy of the source material. […]

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