Free Minds Online
Think Before, During, and After You Read
Don't just question authority. Question everything.

slush pile: n. the unsolicited manuscripts an editor reads to find the items she judges fit to print.

The Internet is the biggest slush pile ever created.

And you are your own editor.

The advantage of this is, nobody else is filtering what gets to you; you make your own choices about what to read and what to believe.

The disadvantages are:

  • The mass of material can be overwhelming.

  • The source of what comes across your screen is often even more anonymous than the sources of National Enquirer articles. Even when there's a name, you don't know this person well, you haven't seen them around the office and learned just how honest they are: it can seem like a crap shoot choosing who to believe.

  • How do you crosscheck a report from Abu Somewhere, Afghanistan, anyway?

  • All this analyzing, crosschecking and verifying takes time, and if you stay online five more minutes your family is going to stage an intervention.

Nonetheless, many people do find their way past the potholes on the Information Highway. We find good, useful data and don't often get bitten by hoaxes (although, True Confession Time, I too was one of those who forwarded the great "Kurt Vonnegut" speech -- the one he never made.)

This page is created to help share guidelines on identifying truth from lies from just plain silly; to share pointers to sites that help do that, and sites that most have us have found to have consistently factual info; and to discuss guidelines for being responsible journalists and editors ourselves.

Because in this World Wide Forum, we are  the media.

A useful site to start with: truth, lies, and the Internet on CNET.

Basic Information Evaluation

Some standards of my own (Anitra Freeman speaking):

  • Check whether the author has identified the source of her information, with enough detail that you can find the source and check the data yourself.

  • Ask the old journalism questions: Who, What, When, Where. If the story has no concrete details for those, it is suspect. "A man on a Paris beach burst into flames one morning last week" gives you no possible way to check up on the information, and is therefore safely categorized as tripe.

  • Never trust anyone who says she is unbiased. Only trust people who let you know their biases up front.

  • Always check everything important with at least two sources who have opposite biases. Play them off against each other and see what sorts out in the middle.

Bill Yerazunis adds: "Books are good, research papers are fine, but if you get the chance, run the experiment anyway and see what results you get."

Virus Alerts and Charity Chain Mail

Caring is good. Caring intelligently is better.

Most con artists operate by exploiting human greed. But many hoaxers and con artists on the Internet operate by exploiting some of the best in human nature, our instinct to care for and protect each other. By exploiting and abusing this, they actively weaken our ability to care for and protect each other.

Hoax Virus Alerts are a virus in themselves, one that infects you instead of your computer, forcing you to spread it to all the people in your address book. This clogs up your friend's email boxes and makes it less likely that real Virus Alerts will be acted on. Before you pass on a Virus Alert, check it out. Better yet, instead of reacting to every individual Alert, encourage all of your friends to install basic anti-virus software and update it regularly against new viruses. Patrick Crispen's Truth about Viruses explains six rules for evaluating the validity of a virus alert, and what to do about valid one.

There are many valid Missing Child Alerts, calls for help or prayer for a sick child, or calls for action on a particular issue. There are also many such alerts that are mistaken or outright hoaxes, and many that were valid when first issued but are long out of date. One "sick child" is now in his thirties! offers a free searchable database where you can type in a few keywords from the email you got and check out any such alert before you pass it on.

Bad news: You cannot make money for your friends by forwarding them an email being "tracked" by AOL, Microsoft, or anyone else. Good news: Your email forwards are not being "tracked" by AOL, Microsoft, or anyone else. "Free Gift for Forwarding?" No

Evaluating Web Sources

There is an increasing amount of information posted on the Web, including how to diagnose yourself and treat any illness. What sources can you trust?

Not trusting anybody is no more intelligent than blindly trusting everybody. Fortunately, there are some guidelines for evaluating information, and the sources of information, even in Virtual where you can't watch the other fella's eyes.

Widener University has an excellent set of free checklists for Evaluating Web Resources. There is much, much more at the Information Quality Online Library.

Alternative Media

The Internet provides a large an inexpensive outlet for independent media. Some traditional journalistic ethics like not deliberately falsifying information clearly apply to any media. Others, like "objectivity," are questioned. As I said in the introduction, I don't trust anyone who says they aren't biased, I only trust people who are aware of their biases and let me know what they are up front.

I prepared a proposed standard of journalistic ethics in alternative media as part of a discussion in the North American Street Newspaper Association. I welcome any comments.

We Are All the Media

As Jello Biafra once said, "If you don't like the media, become the media." Actually, on the Internet we all already are the media. We all pass information on to many people in the course of a day. The more critically we evaluate that information before we pass it on, the more ethical we will be as journalists and as friends.

Critical thinking, logic, and analyzing news sources are not, unfortunately, skills commonly taught in school. We can, however, educate ourselves. Resources on Critical Thinking

Your turn! Your choice!

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Other Related Forums:

alt.society.homeless newsgroup

alt.thebird.copwatch newsgroup discussion and reporting of police brutality

alt.thebird newsgroup discusses a wide range of issues.

Archived mailing list sites:

Homeless People's Network

The financially challenged have the advantage of qualifying for an online writing workshop where we discuss these and other matters. To subscribe to StreetWrites online workshop, send mail to

If you want to start a workshop of your own, email me. I'll give you whatever help I can.


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Updated December 29, 2002