Twenty years ago, there was a lot more sweat and tears involved in getting information. If you wanted to know how many people die each year in motorcycle accidents, you had to head to the library or make some phone calls. Chances are, it would take some time to track down a reliable, accurate figure.
These days, you can find the information in under a minute. An Internet search engine will point you in exactly the right direction, but how can you be sure it’s reliable and accurate? There’s virtually (no pun intended) no sweat and tears involved in an Internet search, so does this undermine the quality of the results?
Like any type of research, it depends on the source. Just like going to a library or making a phone call, you could end up with a shoddy source. Chances are, clicking on the top result of a Google search and trusting what you see is a recipe for academic disaster, but there are reliable methods of finding quality, factual information using the Internet.
I’ve used online journal databases before. Many of the periodicals that theBrain uses for its searches are shared among schools across Canada and the world. When I was doing essays for my English degree, I spent a lot of time sifting through articles in Jstore, Lion, and other databases. I have found that the information is credible and useful, but the articles are almost always available as a hard copy as well. Using the online version is faster, as you can use keywords and phrases to find exactly what you need, but not everything is available in its full-text online. I find the main benefit to having this information online is the ability to work at any time of the day. My local library closes at 9pm. If I need to find something at 2am, the Internet is always open. In the end, it’s like all resources: if you’re thorough and you use the right tools, you can find useful information.
Unfortunately, it’s not always as easy as it sounds. Sometimes, a seemingly trustworthy source of information could have hidden motives that harm the credibility of the research you are doing. If you are using a particular website as a source for a story about gun safety, and you find out the site is funded by a national gun club, the site obviously has a clear bias.
What about Wikipedia.org? It is proclaimed as an unbiased, extensive online encyclopedia. Supporters say that because absolutely anyone can edit the content, it is unbiased. Well, it may seem that way on the surface.
Recently, the website came under fire by thousands of users. Co-founder Jimmy Wales became involved in a relationship with Canadian media figure Rachel Marsden. She had contacted him by E-mail, asking if he could review her bio on Wikipedia, saying that it portrayed her unfairly.
Wikipedia prides itself on being the world’s largest, impartial encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Wales is accused of inappropriately moderating the article about Marsden, severely damaging the credibility of the site itself.
Later, Wales reportedly broke up with Marsden via an announcement on the website. Marsden responded in kind.
“It was such a classy move that I was inspired to do something equally classy myself, so I’m selling a couple of items of clothing he left behind… Jimbo was obviously supposed to come visit me in a couple of weeks and pick up some of his stuff, but obviously that won’t be happening now,” said Marsden in the same eBay posting.
So, how credible do you think Wikipedia is now? There is sufficient evidence to suggest that Wales edited an article on Wikipedia because his girlfriend did not like the way she was being portrayed. What other articles are moderated in this fashion for hidden motives? It isn’t always clear what sites are completely credible, and when you are researching a story you need to be sure your source is exactly who they say they are. When you’re in the byline of a story, it’s your name on the line.