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When Information Goes Bad


The recent online posting of part of a government official's speech - and her subsequent firing - have created a firestorm in the United States around the always sensitive issues of race and responsibility. But it's raising serious questions about the Internet as well, and what some are calling a failure of journalism.

At the beginning of this week, Shirley Sherrod was, by most accounts, a well respected if somewhat anonymous government official working at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the state of Georgia. But within 24 hours of the posting a speech excerpt she gave earlier this year, some in the nation were charging Ms. Sherrod with being a racist. Her boss, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, quickly asked for and received her resignation.

And now it seems it might have all been a terrible mistake.

In the edited clip, Ms Sherrod - who is African-American - is heard telling an audience of members of the National Association for Colored People (NAAACP) that early in her career, she didn't help a white couple seeking to keep their farm as much as she could have. The implication was that Ms. Sherrod was in some ways sanctioning racism. The NAACP is the nation's foremost civil rights organization for African-Americans.

The video clip spread virally around the Internet, leading conservatives and even the NAACP itself to condemn Sherrod's words and actions. Later that same day, as Ms. Sherrod was driving in her car, she was asked by senior USDA officials to pull off to the side of the road and offer her resignation immediately.

Secretary of Agiculture Vilsack accepted her resignation, saying his department has no tolerance for racism; a decision that a spokesman for President Obama says he supported.

But less than 24 hours after the video posting on the conservative website "Big Government," new facts came to light. A full copy of the speech made clear Ms. Sherrod thought better of her initial attitude, and in deciding to later help the white couple learned a powerful lesson about overcoming racism. The couple themselves defended Ms. Sherrod, saying that without her help they would have lost the farm.

In subsequent interviews, Ms. Sherrod says no one from her department or the NAACP called to ask for any explanation of her side of the story.

The NAACP has since retracted its statement, saying it was "snookered" by right-wing elements of the blogosphere. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called Ms. Sherrod's rough treatment "an injustice", and Sec. Vilsack has personally asked for her forgiveness.

Jessica Clark is director of the Future of Public Media Project at American University; she is also a Knight Media Fellow at the New America Foundation and author of the book "Beyond the Echo Chamber." We spoke with Professor Clark to get her thoughts on how this happened, and what it says about how people and institutions find and use information on the Internet.

"What we're seeing is that we're in a really polarized moment in the news environment," says Clarke. "And mainstream and social media are interacting in ways that are unpredictable and have to be corrected on the fly."

With traditional or "mainstream" media like newspapers, radio or TV, it takes money, resources and time to reach large audiences. Over many years a series of standards and conventions developed to ensure that accurate information was released, with hopefully as much of the bad or faulty information filtered out as possible.

The Internet has turned those requirements and conventions on their head. Now one person with a ISP connection can reach millions. Moreover, social media brings a multiplier effect, creating potentially exponential distribution of that information. But if anyone can spread information virally online, how can you trust it's accuracy?

Clark's answer: you can't. "There are some real concerns right now about what's been happening in the news industry," she says. "Fast moving content that seems sexy and like it's going to drive traffic really gains traction, whereas deeper and more nuanced reporting has been losing traction because there aren't really a lot of reporters to do it."

Clark says that everyone - individuals, institutions, and government - will need to become much more "news literate" in the future and employ critical thinking and analysis when reading or seeing material online. But such a shift is likely to take a long time. In the meanwhile, says Clark, expect more - not less - examples like the story of Shirley Sherrod moving forward.

You can watch this complete interview, and much more coverage of how the Internet is changing our lives at VOA's Digital Frontiers website

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    Doug Bernard

    Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.

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