Verify. Verify. Verify. Then Trust.

Anyone who has ever worked for me will tell you that I am a demanding editor. When it comes to writing, I expect perfection. But, that doesn’t just mean that I freak out when “it’s” is used as a possessive – or when “affect” is erroneously substituted for “effect.” It also means that I don’t believe what people say, just because they say it. And I don’t trust information that I haven’t vetted. Anywhere. Not in our office. Not in the media. And certainly not on the Internet.

Given free speech and all, people have the right to use blogs to promote their personal points of view. And in doing so, they can say hateful, despicable things. They can use innuendo at will and lie with abandon. It’s all protected under the First Amendment.

But, here’s the rub. Bloggers, if you want to “rage against the machine” or spew out all the bile that’s in your system, have at it. My problem is not as much with you – or even with the “news” organizations that use you as “reliable” sources. My concern is with the people who actually believe you. Blindly. Naively. Without thinking. Without verifying.

Nothing illustrates this any better than the Shirley Sherrod case, which has dominated this week’s news cycles. The former official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture was forced to resign from her position after a blogger appears to have manipulated and edited video tape that presented Ms. Sherrod as a racist. The tape was aired by a news network and portrayed as truth. As a result, the USDA asked Sherrod to step down – before anyone (including the NAACP, her boss or the White House staff) bothered to view the entirety of her speech. Had the proper fact-checking been done, it would have been crystal clear that the clip was edited out of context and that it bore no resemblance to the truth. Meanwhile, the network that broke the story accepted no responsibility for shoddy reporting and simply reframed it to redirect their audience’s attention. Shame on everybody involved.

Lots of folks are culpable here, and there’s plenty of blame to spread around. But, this is, I believe, a teachable moment. Lessons to be learned: 1) Opinion isn’t fact. Recognize the difference. 2) Don’t allow yourself to be duped. Do your own research; dig as deep as you can to identify the source. Then find out if that source is pushing a particular agenda. 3) Adopt a healthy level of skepticism. Understand that many bloggers simply masquerade as “journalists” and be aware that news organizations can and do manipulate the truth. 4) Balance your knowledge portfolio by taking the time to read in-depth articles penned by good, old-fashioned reporters writing for real newspapers or magazines. Sadly, there are fewer of them around than there should be, but their insight will give you much-needed perspective. 5) Use common sense. When you hear every talking head on radio and television – plus a litany of politicians – using exactly the same catch phrases on the same day, it ought to raise a red flag. Don’t think for one second that they haven’t been fed those talking points. I mean, come on.

So when it comes to making a pitch, promoting a client – or just expanding your own knowledge base – today’s reality dictates this: Verify. Verify. Verify. Then trust.

This stuff keeps me up at night. How about you?

Linda Costa is president and founder of Linda Costa Communications Group – a wordwise company. This is her first blog post.