In the informal hierarchy of the information media, the printed word is still considered the most credible. I am not quite sure why this is so, because television allows you to witness the unfolding of events yourself.
Would the world have felt the horror of September 11 so poignantly if it weren't for the stunning images of that seemingly ordinary flight crash into the World Trade Center, or witnessed the twin towers collapsing in an avalanche of dust?
It was television at its dramatic best, even though the images were actually sanitised to keep out much of the blood and gore.
Similarly, visuals of rampaging crowds and burning houses brought alive the horror of the Gujarat carnage to most of us and made a mockery of those who alleged that the coverage was biased.
Yet, it is the printed word that is still considered more credible than television, except that it is now threatened by a new media -- the World-Wide Web.
A friend was pointing out last week how even normally cautious and cynical persons tend to believe everything they pick up on the Internet. Yet, just about everybody can post news, views, gossip, opinion, malice, porn and hoaxes on the Net, with almost no barriers. But that doesn't seem to affect its credibility.
I am not saying that people believe all the obvious gags and 'spam' that hit them every day; or are conned by the promises to grow various body parts, shrink fat, instantly eliminate their debt or offer incredible mortgage rates. It is the seemingly reliable news and information sites and their message boards that find ready believers, however vague their antecedents.
Isn't it time we asked how dependable is the medium that has become such an important part of our lives (at least those who are reading this column)? Does www enjoy more credibility than it deserves? Why do people believe everything they read on the Net?
On November 4, two international consumer organisations that had attempted to find some answers have released the findings of a survey of 460 Web sites conducted with the help of researchers in 13 countries.
Consumers International (a global federation of more than 250 consumer organisations in 115 countries) and the United States-based Consumer Webwatch conducted separate studies, which establish what many of us have always suspected - that information on the Net should be viewed with care and relied upon only after some basic checking.
Consumers International's press release says that half the sites in their survey failed to give warnings about the proper use of the information presented, offer credentials or background on the people dispensing advice on the sites, or to give sources for advice.
The research covered sites providing information on health, specifically breast cancer, prostate cancer and allergies; sites providing information on financial services and products such as mortgages and life insurance; and 'deal-finder' sites comparing prices on computers, flights and car rental rates.
Broadly, the study reveals that:
Forty nine per cent of health and financial sites failed to give warnings about the appropriate use of their information or say that consumers should consult a professional before acting on their advice.
Half the sites on health and finance failed to provide full information about the authority and credentials of the people behind that advice. But more than half (57 per cent) of general advice sites did quote sources.
Thirty per cent had no address or telephone number listed and 26 per cent were not clear about who owned them.
Sixty per cent of the sites provide no information on whether or not their content is influenced by commercial interests of partners, sponsors and advertisers.
None of this is very surprising to us in the media, who have trained ourselves to look at the 'about us' section on Web sites or for proper sourcing of information. We also tend to rely more on government and organisational Web sites, which are obliged to post accurate information, rather than private postings and unreliable email.
Interestingly, the study by Consumer Webwatch (conducted together with Sliced Bread Design and others) showed that most experts already take care to check the credentials of sites that they rely on and are more comfortable with Web sites that educate consumers and do not nudge them towards their own products.
But they seem to be the only ones who show some discernment; the average reader continues to be unconcerned about the credibility of the Net.
Consumer Webwatch notes that out of the 2,440 comments it analysed about credibility, less than 9 per cent of the readers seemed concerned about the identity of the site or its operator.
This was part of an assessment that it made about concerns that participants had raised on their own about accuracy of information and its reliability. The findings are disturbing. They reveal that none of the participants were worried about a site's record in correcting false and misleading information.
Only 7 per cent paid attention to 'customer service' or related polices while assessing credibility and less than one per cent mentioned privacy policies in their comments.
The survey also shows that we have a long way to go before we become less credulous about the Net and lose some of our awe at the instant access to vast libraries of news, information and research from around the world.
The good news is that the credibility of the Net is already a subject of much research and discussion and there is a serious effort to go beyond surfing tools and lists of 'best' and 'useful' sites.
A variety of list builders, universities and non-governmental orgainsations are focussing attention on the accuracy and reliability of information on Web sites.
Universities in particular are making a determined effort to prepare lists of reliable Web sites for their students to use. There is also an effort to draft an ethics code (and an e-health ethics initiative) for sites giving information on health.
Inaccurate information about health is what seems to worry people the most. An article posted on the Texas University site laments that health related Web sites do not come with a Surgeon General's warning saying - what you read could be hazardous to your health!
Consumers International hopes that 'governmental organisations can contribute to confidence-building by ensuring that existing laws in the offline world are applied equally online and that existing standards are enforced.'
But that is worrying too. Netizens and site operators must find ways to police themselves in order to keep government interference to a minimum.
Although gross abuse, cyber crime, hacking and slander need the state enforcement agencies to be called in, it would be best if governments (in any country) are not allowed to meddle or to police the Net - otherwise there is the greater danger that ham-handed bureaucracy will kill the freedom and vitality of the World Wide Web.
The study is available in full at http://www.consumerwebwatch.org and http://www.consumersinternational.org/document_store/Doc509.pdf