This principle goes by many names: research, reporting, homework, etc. The more important you consider a topic, the more essential it becomes to follow up on media reports about it.
The Web has already sparked a revolution in commerce, as potential buyers of products and services discovered relatively easy ways to learn more before purchasing. No one with common sense buys a car today based solely on a single advertisement; we do research on the Web and in other media, making comparisons and arming ourselves for the ultimate confrontation with the dealer.
There’s a lesson in this caveat emptor behavior. We generally recognize the folly of making any major decisions about our lives based on one thing we’ve read, heard or seen. But do we also recognize why we need to dig deeply to get the right answers about life and citizenship issues that are important to us? We need to keep investigating, sometimes in major ways but more often in small ones, to ensure that we make good choices.
The rise of the Internet has given us, for the first time in history, a relatively easy way to dig deeper into the topics we care about the most. We can ask questions, and we can get intelligent answers to these questions.
Investigation has limits, of course. No one expects you to travel to Afghanistan to double-check the reporting from the New York Times (though we should maintain a healthy sense of skepticism about what even such reputable sources tell us). However, there’s no excuse for not checking further into the closer-to-home information that informs your daily life.
Near the end of the Cold War, President Reagan frequently used the expression “Trust but verify” in relation to his dealings with the Soviet Union. He didn’t invent the saying, but it was appropriate for the times, and it’s an equally rational approach to take when evaluating the media we use today.