Recently, a client of ours was covered a great deal in the media by journalists familiar with the company and their drug in development. Unfortunately, many of these well-informed journalists made factual errors when describing the drug’s mechanism of action, and we found ourselves following up with very smart people to request a correction.
As it turns out, our client’s Wikipedia page and the subsequent pages explaining the drug and other scientific terms were somewhat misleading. These Wikipedia pages had been created by a source externally who had not taken the time to consider whether the mechanism of action was clearly defined.
As the misleading statements on Wikipedia were consistent with the often made factual errors, we were led to believe that journalists were using sources like Wikipedia when writing their stories. This is not to say they assume Wikipedia is completely factual — no; rather, if Wikipedia manages to link two similar phenomena that aren’t actually the same, most people will be confused.
In today’s New York Times, Virginia Heffernan describes how the process of fact-checking has changed since the internet and specifically how editorials today are more interested in using facts as rhetorical devices than identifiable objects. As the nuance of ‘fact’ has changed with the invent of the ‘Google-able factoid,’ factuality is now a more difficult achievement in journalism.
Particularly, she notes that, just like Wikipedia, old tomes of reference were just as prone to “wacko…off-the-wall data that hardly seemed to be proper objects of empirical study.” And just like the time before the internet, fact-checkers would use periodicals like the Times or the Washington Post as confirmation…only to find out that they were just as fallible.
Journalists who check their own facts will go to reference sites and other periodicals for confirmation, so it is crucial to correct errors as they come along. It is also useful to use resources like Wikipedia to prospectively correct commonly misunderstood ideas. Wikipedia allows anyone to edit articles to most closely approach factuality; use your knowledge to improve its accuracy. Further, consider explaining a concept, like the mechanism of action, and then inserting a note of what it is not. Verbalize the common misunderstanding and preempt any further factual errors.
Its a difficult, fast-paced, 24-hour-news-cycle world out there. Your target audiences will use online resources to learn more about your company, and they will benefit if you can provide them with the best most accurate information.