One of the most important lessons I remember being taught in journalism school is to always always consider the source. Who is doing the talking, who do they work for, and why are they talking to the media? What do they have to gain and would they lie or exaggerate the truth in order to get their point across? If so, does that mean they have nothing to contribute to the story? And if a source cannot be trusted completely, or makes allegations that cannot be proven, is their perspective even worth considering?
It was a good lesson, and one I completely forgot about a year and a half ago when I purchased a stereo system.
The warranty long expired, that system is now officially broken. I can still use it to listen to the radio or play movies in stereo, but it no longer reads CDs so its dead to me. It sits on the shelf gathering dust and knuckles until I can afford a replacement. In the meantime it serves as a sober, and expensive, reminder to always consider the source.
You see, before I purchased the system, I did some research on the Web to find out what other people were saying about the different makes and models that were on the market. Most online stores have message boards where you can rate products and write comments for the benefit of other customers.
The stereo I chose came very highly rated by about half the customers that made comments, and the rest at least gave it a passing grade. It got four stars out of a possible five with more than 20 reviews, and that was good enough for me. I bought the damn thing.
Although I would normally trust the opinions of random strangers, Im also a bit wary of sales people, having purchased my share of lemons over the years. The low point was a used guitar amplifier that came ungrounded and could have killed me.
Once the stereo was officially broken, I decided to take it apart to see if there was anything I could do to fix it. I took the cover off only to discover that the innards were made out of cheap plastic, and coated with sticky oil and a carpet of dust. The entire mechanism that opens, closes and rotates the heavy plastic disc tray (one of the main problems Ive been having) is driven by a cheap plastic cog about a centimetre in diameter with a tiny rubber belt about as thick as a piece of spaghetti. Aside from a couple of screws, there wasnt enough metal in the mechanics to trip off airport security buzzers.
As for why the laser wont read discs and the system randomly shuts off in the middle of songs, the problem wasnt as easy to spot but the electronics looked as cheap as the mechanics.
I knew then that the system was probably beyond real repair if I paid to fix one thing, another would probably break two weeks later. By the law of diminishing returns, I knew it was time to cut my losses and buy a new stereo.
But where should I go? And who could I trust?
At this point I started to wonder if any the reviews on the Web site had somehow been contributed by sales agents in order to push the sale of these products? Or had the negative reviews been taken off the site?
Out of curiosity, I checked out some current postings, and realized that the language in some of the messages was somewhat suspicious. I was in advertising and marketing for a year and a half, and know ad content when I see it.
I also failed to find even one product without at least three out of five stars, or a comparable rating. Maybe thats just quality control on the part of manufacturers and retailers, but maybe theres more to it than that.
My worst fears were confirmed in this months Shift Magazine ( www.shift.com) , in an article entitled Not So Quiet on the Set.
If youre unfamiliar with the term Blog, it refers to a Web log, which is essentially a message board where people can chip in their two cents on almost every topic. There are blogs for politics, sports, movies, music, television shows, literature the list (the biggest Ive found is at Blog Universe, www.bloguniverse.com ) is endless.
The mass appeal of blogs is the fact that they represent the unpaid, unsolicited, uncensored opinions of John and Jane Q. Public. I firmly believe that the great debates of our time are not happening in the UN or in government, but among Internet bloggers.
That said, there has always been a concern in the blogging community that the wrong kind of people would infiltrate the lists, endorsing people, products and politics for money and power, and corrupt the whole democratic spirit of blog culture.
As Shift reported, " lets face it, weblogs are the creative marketers wet dream. All the repeated visits! The rapport and identifying with the writer! Its perfect."
The focus of the article is a young woman named Helen Jane Yeager (www.helenjane.com), an out-of-work graphic designer, hot dog vendor and serial blogger from San Francisco who attracted the interest of Cyan Pictures ( www.cyanpictures.com) .
She was recently hired by Cyan to write a blog from the set of a mainstream Hollywood movie called I Love Your Work. By taking the job, she became the first paid blogger on the Internet at least the first that we know about.
She has the freedom to write what she wants, but lets be honest; even if your head isnt completely turned by the glamour of the business, youre going to be pretty darn nice about it if you ever want to blog for Hollywood again. Thats a powerful incentive for a hot dog vendor.
So where can you find accurate reviews on the Internet?
Ive compiled a short list of review sites on the Web that are trustworthy.
www.rottentomatoes.com Rotten Tomatoes is a fairly reliable source for movie reviews. The overall ratings for movies are not determined by individual critics, but by amalgamating the reviews of all the major critics. There is also a separate ranking for the public.
www.consumerreports.org Consumer Reports in one of the longest-standing product review services in the world, providing unbiased reviews on everything from cars to appliances to home electronics. The only problem is that they require a subscription, but when youre contemplating spending hundreds, even thousands of dollars on merchandise $24 US is not a lot to ask for a yearly subscription. Monthly subscriptions are $4.95 US.
www.audioreview.com AudioREVIEW, like Rotten Tomatoes, compiles professional and public reviews from industry sources. I wish I knew about this site a year and a half ago.