Carl Wernicke: Fact Checking In The 21st Century

Jun 8, 2016


Credit IHMC

Over many years as a newspaper reporter and editor, I developed a pretty good eye for evaluating what was or was not reasonable. To mix metaphors here, you could say I got good at giving things the sniff test.

This proved really valuable during the years when I edited letters to the editor at the Pensacola News Journal. I quickly learned that facts mean different things to different people. Or, as Mark Twain put it, “It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”

Still, in defense of those of us who learned our ways before the advent of modern technology, i.e., the Internet, we grew up in an era when there were editors between us and what we read. So by the time the Internet came along, people of my generation tended to believe that what they saw in print had been vetted, and therefore assertions of fact could be accepted at face value.

This proved to be a big mistake. So in editing letters to the editor, I spent a lot of time cautioning people that they needed to research what they found on the Internet, and not just trust that it was true. And of course even today the phishing attack remains a key way of hacking people’s accounts, even if few of us anymore believe that, say, the former treasurer of an African nation will actually pay us to help him transfer his funds to a U.S. bank.

Anyway, all that’s to say that it pays to maintain a healthy skepticism. 

So when I saw in a full-page ad in the New York Times Magazine recently for a new app, it raised my suspicions.

The headline read, “Give Leftovers New Life.”

The app, called scraped, claimed to work like this: you download the app, and use it to let them know that you had leftovers available. They would send a volunteer driver over to scrape your plate and deliver the food to hungry people.

Say what? Even in the most delirious do-gooder’s imagination the economics of this could not possibly make sense. OK, I thought, maybe in a densely populated place like New York … naw, no way. It would be cheaper to send workers to McDonald’s and buy a bunch of Happy Meals.

So I went to scraped, clicked on the “about” link, and was rewarded to find the following assertion: “Surely, we can’t be serious. We’re not.”

It turns out the whole point was to remind people that millions of Americans struggle with hunger, and offer some ways of helping out. Now, I’m not endorsing their effort or even confirming their statistics. But I did think it was a clever way of grabbing attention ... even as I wondered how many people did think they were serious.

But mainly I’m glad to see that my editing filter still functions. It’s not that often that I bump up against technology and feel like I came away a winner.

Meanwhile, I still have that bridge I bought to get rid off, so if anyone is looking for a real bargain, contact me through this radio station.