The Internet can be a wonderful vehicle for sharing thoughts and ideas, however, it can also be an unintentional weapon used to launch shards of inaccuracies and untruths. The collateral damage of such careless postings can result in irreversible damage to those in its path. It is not uncommon to find negative information about organizations I research for my work with Caring For The World Films. Positive or negative, I always search for original sourcing to confirm anything I dig up. Sometimes, the organizations I profile get rattled because I am not simply reworking their official public relations statements. I have to remind them that objectivity is a virtue not a vice. Confirm, confirm, confirm...always and use some common sense. It is fundamental to confirm facts of an interview or story and this includes blogs.
Do you have to have the tenacity of Steve Kroft and 60 Minutes every time you write a blog? It depends on the subject matter. When I write about humanitarian issues and millions of dollars in donations, I lean on the side of thorough fact checking because reputations are on the line.
One does not have to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist to spot a poorly researched and sourced article or blog. Recently, I came across a quasi-anonymous blog that was very critical of a non-governmental organization (NGO) that I have been researching for several years. Anyone who read this blog would have been alarmed by its tone and content. It was not clear why the post was written, other than to share information about a hospital in a developing country. It appeared to be a travel blog.
The author, identified only by his initials, posted what appeared to be a list of complaints by a foreign volunteer physician. The list included unusually high supply shortages and financial “shenanigans” by hospital administrators. The doctor is even quoted as saying “I felt like I was being held prisoner” during his time volunteering at the NGO’s hospital. There was no indication whether the author contacted officials of the non-profit organization for comment or verified any of the information in his blog.
I tracked down the blogger, a medical student who, at the time, was participating in a university research project. The purpose of the posting was to share his field notes with fellow project members. He confirmed there was no fact checking, follow-up interviews, documentation or eyewitness accounts to validate any of the information he cited in his blog, nor did he attempt to contact officials of the non-profit organization. In fact, he asked me not to share his contact information or our discussion with the members of the NGO.
It was obvious to me that the student had no intention of harming the NGO, however, the post, if read by a potential volunteer or benefactor, could have disastrous consequences. For instance, the physician he interviewed said that he felt like he was being held prisoner by the NGO. Wow–that is quite a statement. What is the context? Why did he feel this way? Was he being held against his will? Who would want to volunteer for the NGO if they read that?
Another complaint by the foreign doctor was that he witnessed a shortage of supplies and patients paying for services. Assuming medical care was free, he concluded that the hospital administrators were "up to no good". Clearly this is a very serious charge and begs the questions. If a potential benefactor were to read this, it could quickly put the kibosh on a donation.
A quick Google search by the student would have debunked much of the information in the blog, specifically the allegation of financial “shenanigans”. He also could have simply asked one of the staff members if the hospital had a service fee structure. As it turns out, the hospital does not offer free services. Signs at the check-in desk, although not in English, clearly point out the fee policy. Fees are collected based on the patient’s income.
Supply shortages are nothing new in developing countries. Further inquiry with the hospital staff and the NGO officials would have revealed a possible connection between the supply shortage and unusually high caseloads and monsoon weather. Additionally, the NGO is audited not once, but twice a year by US and international auditors. The audit reports, as well as all of their IRS 990 forms and accounting records are available for review at anytime.
Although I have been unable to confirm the story with the physician, from my conversations with both the student and NGO officials, I am confident, the physician in question was not physically held against his will. The context of the doctor's comment was missing from the blog. Patient caseload is known to double or triple when a visiting foreign physician is available. This poor doctor was working long hours, on-call with limited staff. To make matters worse, he was volunteering during monsoon season at the hospital, which is located in a fairly isolated area. The volunteer physician was not only working at the hospital, but sleeping there as well. Common sense tells you he was pretty much "stuck". Who wouldn't complain about such miserable conditions? Welcome to third world medicine. This would have been very interesting to add to the student’s post, as many people do not consider issues such as weather and caseload when seeking volunteer opportunities.
Had the author taken a few minutes to contact the organization for a response and posted a disclosure, he would have gained valuable insight and added credibility to his article. It is highly possible that the entire tone of his blog and his “insights” would have been different.
Did the blogger, have a duty to confirm and source the facts or, at the very least, get a response from NGO officials? The student readily admits he did not make any attempt to confirm the information nor did he offer the NGO an opportunity for public rebuttal. Why not just add this disclosure for clarity?
Clearly, readers can see the consequences of such careless blogging. By failing to verify the physician's statements, the reputation of this successful organization is at risk.
What are the lessons here? Embrace your right to free speech with responsibility. Make disclosures that will clarify and give context to your blog. When you fact check, provide legitimate sourcing. For those who read blogs, do so with caution. Conduct your own research, track down original sources and verify the facts. If you are the subject of a damaging blog, locate the author and request a rebuttal be posted.
Critics of my point will clamor the freedom of speech. Listen, I am 100% for free speech and I will fight to preserve this God given right. However, with this right comes responsibility. Free speech is powerful and has consequences.
Update: The NGO has contacted the student and the article has been temporarily removed. The author stated he would update his article once he conducts further research.
*Note: I was unable to reach the physician mentioned for comment by deadline. I am still actively pursuing this source and I will update my post once I receive a response. Although I am happy the two parties now have an open dialogue, I do not support censorship of anyone's opinions.
God bless anyone who volunteers during monsoon season.
Debi Lang is a world traveler and passionate humanitarian who never leaves home without her camera, well-worn hiking boots and endless supply of groovy headbands.
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