Most stuff you see on the web is not original reporting or research. Instead, it is often commentary on the re-reporting of re-reporting on some original story or piece of research. And that's a problem.
Now, in some cases stories or findings get better as they pass through intermediaries. If I tell a reporter a piece of gossip I heard, and they go out and verify it by talking to eyewitnesses and experts, their report on my piece of gossip is probably more accurate than my gossip. If a scientist gets a result and another scientist with a talent for explaining things blogs it, maybe the second explanation is better than the first. Research also shows that as gossip gets passed around, sometimes important details that were missed become more prominent.
But in most cases, the more a story is passed around, the more it starts to become a bit warped. That's due to a bunch of reasons. Human nature is to exaggerate stories for effect. Desire of websites to get advertising dollars can result in them printing the most shocking version of something. And there are bad actors: people who will take a story that has some nuance to it and remove the details that provide that nuance, or invent details that didn't exist.
Very often by the time a story finds you on the web it has been altered so much that it presents a radically wrong version of an event or a piece of research. The person you are reading usually did no original reporting, made no phone calls to check facts, and often barely skimmed the original story before writing up their blog post, thinkpiece, hot take, or re-reported news item. And so they either get things wrong by mistake, or, in some cases, intentionally mislead.
Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem. Usually, the original reporting, research, or photo is available on the web. By going to the original reporting or research source (or finding a high quality secondary source that did the hard work of verification) you can get a story that is more complete, or a research finding that is more accurate. This two minute video shows you how going to the source can be as easy as clicking through a link:
Online Verification Skills — Video 3: Find the Original Source
Early studies of rumors suggested that as rumors traveled further from the source they were altered in predictable ways. They were"leveled" — as they traveled, details are stripped out. They are also "sharpened" — certain small details are added or emphasized to give the story more "punch". And both of these processes happened in the context of "assimilation" — the details that were omitted and the details that were added or emphasized are chosen because they either fit what the speaker thinks is the main theme of the story, or what the speaker thinks the listener will be most interested in.
Later research called into question the particular nature of these processes, but these three actions are a helpful way of thinking about the sorts of alterations people can make to claims, quotes, and media as they pass them along.
These processes are not necessarily bad. It means that as a story travels it often becomes more concise, more engaging, and more geared toward the interest of its audience. Think of a long-winded story full of details that someone has told you which you have then retold. Assuming you have a credible take on what the story is about, you'll probably forget the irrelevant details, and remember the most memorable ones. So when you retell it, you'll provide a shorter more engaging version customized to your audience. And that's good! One reason many people enjoy getting news from social media is it can be much more efficient than a longer news story, calling out the pieces that really matter to you in particular.
But the same way that these processes can provide value in the hands of careful storytellers, they can be damaging in the hands of those who are careless, are guided by strong bias, or are motivated to distort the truth for their own benefit.
Consider this tweet from our old friend John D'oh:
John is tweeting his takeaway from this article on sunscreen (or at least his takeaway from the article headline):