It seems like many people have trouble separating “reality” from reality these days. What, with so many tv shows taking us into the “lives” of housewives, wives of basketball players, aspiring singers, adventure junkies, and even inside the homes of the rich and famous it may seem that peoples’ definition of what’s real may vary. Some people even think that anything they read on the internet is real because after all, they wouldn’t allow anything to be published that wasn’t, right? Sadly, this is not always the case. It even happens with bloggers and other online journalists. You see, there is a lot of information that people publish that simply isn’t real, or at least not 100% complete and accurate.
We have a responsibility to our readers
We bloggers may be a relatively small community in the grand scheme of things, particularly those in the personal finance niche, like myself, and it may be frowned upon to call others out much in the same way whistle blowing is viewed as the adult version of “tattling”, but in this case I feel it simply needs to be done. You see, while staying at a Holiday Inn or playing a part on television may make it ok to step outside your knowledge base in commercials, it just isn’t right when it comes to giving advice online that others may depend on.
Too many times I have come across sites that give advice on how to save on taxes, or giving tips for creating an investment strategy, or telling the readers that this or that type of insurance is not necessary. In many instances there is no disclaimer about talking to a licensed professional or someone who is truly qualified (an not in their own mind) to give advice on the subject matter. Very seldom to people put a warning to this information stating that it is only their own opinion and not fact or advice. Very rarely do people stop to think if they really should be writing on those topics in the first place.
I’m an accountant, so I only write about and give advice on things I deal with in my line of work. I don’t write about investing in derivatives, or insurance, or even marketing a blog because, quite honestly, I don’t know a single thing about any of those topics and I have no business trying to talk about it from an authoritative standpoint. Even if I’ve read a million blogs on any particular topic that doesn’t make me an expert or give me the right to try and come off as one.
Disclaimers don’t mean a thing
There are a great many blogs out there with widgets or even entire pages that contain something to the effect of “…the information found on this site is for entertainment purposes only…”. All that is, is a legal technicality that may help indemnify a person if they are accused of giving wrongful information at some point. The fact of the matter is, regardless of what this disclaimer states (if you even have one to begin with) many people write in a way that comes off as being authoritative and advisory in nature. People don’t search out the disclaimer on websites or even read them after reading a blog post, they simply take the information at face value. It may not be smart, bu that’s the way it is. Just having a disclaimer doesn’t make it alright to give advice or tell people what they should be doing in certain topic areas.
Why this message? Why now?
Not too long ago, Derek Halpern stated that we are facing a content credibility crisis and I believe it. I have seen a major mainstream magazine publish an article which I found contained incomplete tax advice. I also, during the course of my blog reading, came across a new blog (or at least was new to me, and one that I had never read before); the topic of the post that caught my attention was about ways to save on taxes before the year ends. Since that is both my educational and professional background, I was naturally curious. That is when I saw this section:
…which led to the following interaction:
This is where everything comes to light. I don’t think I was very condescending or rude in the way I went about trying to correct the passage, but it really annoys me when people without the proper training or knowledge go off and write things that are either incomplete or entirely wrong (particularly when articles are based on something they had read/heard elsewhere without any real-world experience of their own on the topic). The prior being the case in this exchange, as well as the magazine article I mentioned before. Here, the author is not providing a clear and complete guidelines regarding the charitable donation deduction, and clearly doesn’t understand my clarification in his response. They even fail to understand that they actually did not make the distinction they claimed to have made in the response to my original comment.
These were two obvious examples of the type of content that fail to meet the responsibility we all have to our readers which I spoke of in the beginning of this article. Too often, writers simply regurgitate information they have seen elsewhere, without truly understanding it or providing the proper context.
However, not everyone is guilty of this. I recently came across a great response to a comment by Ninja at his blog Punch Debt In The Face. There, he directly states that he cannot give more information due to the fact that he isn’t qualified or licensed to do so:
I instantly gained even more respect for the man, and told him that I become a fan for life when I read it. It’s not something you see every day, especially in the blogosphere where so many people try to make themselves out to be experts in areas they aren’t rather than admitting the truth. How hard is it to say “Sorry, I’m not qualified to answer that”?
This isn’t just about financial bloggers
Anyone who writes for the purpose of informing others needs to be accountable for what they write and to honor their responsibility to their readers. Just because someone has been through a divorce, especially if they aren’t a divorce attorney, that doesn’t give them the right to try to give others advice on how to go through the process. If someone successfully lost a lot of weight following a specific diet, that doesn’t mean they are qualified to give advice to others on how to go about it since they do not know the medical histories or circumstances surrounding other people’s weight issues. If someone manages follow the guidelines set by others to get good search rankings, that doesn’t mean that person is in a position to offer SEO consulting services..
It’s very simple: experience is only a small part of the authority equation in many instances. It takes a lot more than going through something once or reading up on a subject to become an authority and be in a position to advise people on the matter(s).
Where do we go from here?
I won’t pretend to have all of the answers, and that is actually the first step that needs to be taken. People need to learn how to say “I don’t know” when asked about certain topics they do not fully understand or have a working knowledge of. They need to be able to stop and say “I’m not in a position to talk about that” before they publish the same kind of information. If you don’t know enough about a particular issue or topic, don’t write about it, it’s that simple. What’s the saying?
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”
We all need to remember that by trying to be “informative” we may actually become a point of reference for others to turn to, whether we like it or not. We need to make it a point to remember that when putting things on a blog, magazine, ezine, newsletter or whatever you publish because somebody may be trusting those words or ideas. We all owe it to our readers to do right by them and give them complete, accurate information, especially if that is what the ultimate goal is.
Just think: have you ever read something that left you shaking your head knowing it was factually incomplete or wrong? Have you ever wanted to tell a blog author or journalist that they really shouldn’t write about topics they clearly don’t have a strong understanding of? Go ahead, agree or disagree with me, it’s ok either way. You can even tell me if either of the prior statements are about me!