THE internet, to keep one’s tongue firmly in the cheek, has its uses.

In the wake of climate-change disasters of increasing frequency, from forest fires in France, to floods in the Nevada desert, to the calamitous conditions being experienced here with, God help us, no end in sight, a certain newspaper archival snippet has been doing the rounds. Forgive me if you’ve already come across it, but for those who have not, it is apparently a photograph of a brief news item in a newspaper called the Rodney and Otamatea Times, headlined ‘Coal Consumption Affecting Climate’.

It says, in its entirety: “The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year. When this is burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. This tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature. The effect may be considerable in a few centuries.”

It is dated Aug 14, 1912.

Of course, one can’t believe everything — if much at all — on the internet, especially on the social media where the algorithms in play ensure the creation of echo chambers. That, as anyone with an ounce of intelligence will repeat, is the point of formal news media outlets that have in place elaborate systems of verification and fact-checking, resulting in them taking ownership of the veracity of the news they disseminate; thus, their commitment to being held accountable. The University of WhatsApp and a PhD in Facebook, as a friend puts it, don’t do so well in the rankings.

Of course, one can’t believe everything on the internet.

So, under the beady-eyed glare of news editors with whom I have worked, I set about searching. As far as I can tell (and to my surprise) the news item is genuine. According to Snopes, amongst some of the sites I checked, it seems it first showed up on the internet in 2016 (Oct 11, to be precise) on a Facebook page titled ‘Sustainable Business Network NZ’. The clipping is reportedly still to be found in the digital archives of the National Library of New Zealand.

So, Word up! as the expression goes. It is imperative to ensure that the information one absorbs comes from a credible source. Otherwise, as is the regrettable case with an unacceptably large proportion of this globe’s multitudes, the ‘truth’, what’s ‘really, really real’ is nothing more than sound and fury signifying not much at all.

But, that does not mean that other sources cannot more or less be taken as relatively reliable — at least as a starting point. I use all these qualifiers because, for example, Wikipedia is not what could traditionally be defined as a credible, responsibility-taking source of information. The open editing, information gathering, and factual cross-checking process the model uses means that pretty much the first thing every schoolchild in this age is taught, is: ‘don’t quote Wikipedia’.

And yet, pretty much everyone I know, including professional copyeditors and fact-checkers, including myself, often find themselves turning, as a first point of reference, to this source to get a basic grasp of the concept/data we are handling — not in our professional lives, but certainly outside that: a song, a poet, a country’s major indicators. Curious about, say, some aspect of Bolivia, about which I know next to nothing, looking into Wikipedia can be useful as a fast starting point, after which I can cross-check with the Encyclopaedia Britannica, or UN data compilations, or a traditional media outlet I choose to turn to.

It is argued that it is precisely because of its endlessly open-to-editing/revision model, and the existence everywhere of nitpickers for fact and the meticulous correction of the record, that Wikipedia is often relatively reliable.

But this entity, too, seems to have joined the ranks of traditional me­­dia giants such as the Guardian, or the New York Times, or Washington Post — most of the English-language traditional media/news-disseminating sour­ces, including in Pakistan, are increasingly facing slowing readerships, falling revenues and advertising levels, pay cuts, and lay-offs. Even Wikipedia is now asking for readers to take on their share of the financial burden. It would appear that the world has an insatiable appetite for information, but is not happy to pay salaries to those that painstakingly gather and process it for them.

One must wonder, then, how much value is now placed on reliable information and news. Do people still think that ‘really, really real’ is important? Do they recognise that truth and fact have incalculable worth? By their reading, information consumption and spending habits, perhaps not. Yet, if you had to look up the headline of this article in a dictionary, know that there is a multitude of people who earn a living through these means in an increasingly dumbed-down world. Commitment doesn’t quite pay the bills.

Word up? Frightening thought: perhaps the tale is increasingly being told by idiots.

The writer is a journalist.
[email protected]

Published in Dawn, September 4th, 2022

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