Verifying Online Information: The Old Slave Speaks

Journalism.org‘s Tom Rosenstiel wrote about how the letter from a slave to his former master, that was publicized in Letters of Note recently was verified by various bloggers and online sites. The writing is very good, and the letter writer’s tone is worth reading. Because the letter involved a former slave and master, questions about authenticity immediately sprung up. This demonstrates that there’s still legwork for reporters to do, even if it is online, and that it is important to verify information you find online.

 As with much information posted online, a few people immediately raised questions about the letter’s authenticity. Some wondered if the language was too modern or if a former slave, unlikely to be fully educated, could have written or dictated it.

In response, a number of people including historians tried to use the web to dig up clues about the letter’s origin.

Jason Kottke, for example, used the site Ancestry.com to uncover a census from 1870 showing a Jourdan Anderson living in Ohio with Mandy, his wife, and four children. Kottke also found a record of Anderson’s death in a 1905 issue of the Dayton Daily Journal by searching the obituaries available from the Dayton library system.

David Galbraith tweeted a link showing details about Anderson from a 1900 census.

On Snopes.com, a website known for investigating online rumors, a discussion on the message boards uncovered even more information such as pictures of the letter as it appeared in the Pennsylvania newspaper The Agitator in 1865.

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