In a world of information, there’s lots of misinformation. How much does truth matter to you? How can you protect yourself?

Some years ago, I received the following simple suggestion in an e-mail message:

When you are making out your Christmas card list this year, please include the following:

A Recovering American soldier
C/o Walter Reed Army Medical Center
6900 Georgia Avenue,NW
Washington,D.C. 20307-5001

The e-mail had come to me from an official representative of a respected institution, and my first reaction was not only to follow the suggestion but to forward this message to everyone in my e-mail contacts. I do not forward mass emails, a personal decision I made years ago, and usually delete them unread.

This one was different, or so I thought.

I hit the forward button and was about to add my own sentence or two. At that moment, a still, small voice somewhere inside said, “Check your facts.” The voice was that of teachers from days gone by, teachers who had so carefully taught me and my classmates to think for ourselves.

Instead of proceeding with the e-mail message, I used the same procedure that I have used and suggested to others for quite a few years:

  1. I highlighted a portion of the text in that e-mail message and copied it (Control-C). In this case, the first three lines of the message looked like something that would return on-point hits.
  2. I pasted that portion of the text into a Google search.

Within seconds, the verdict was obvious. It was a hoax. The most compelling evidence was this link where Walter Reed addressed this topic, saying:

Walter Reed Army Medical Center officials want to remind those individuals who want to show their appreciation through mail to include packages, letters, and holiday cards addressed to ‘Any Wounded Soldier’ or ‘A Recovering American Soldier’ that Walter Reed cannot accept these packages in support of the decision by then Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Transportation Policy in 2001. This decision was made to ensure the safety and well-being of patients and staff at medical centers throughout the Department of Defense. In addition, the U.S. Postal Service is no longer accepting “Any Service Member” or “A Recovering American Soldier” letters or packages. Mail to “Any Service Member” that is deposited into a collection box will not be delivered.

The message went on to suggest organizations, such as the Red Cross, where donations could be made.

Had I simply forwarded the e-mail and sent a few cards, my cards would have never reached the eyes of any soldier. Instead, my good intentions would have added an additional load to the personnel charged with disposing of the glut of mail that they currently receive. Rather than being part of something good, I would have only added to an already existing problem.

Why do I go to the trouble to determine the truth in an e-mail before I pass it on? The reason is simple: Truth matters.

Our world has become one in which good information is only a few keystrokes away. Unfortunately, the same holds true for bad information. If teaching young people how to distinguish fact from fiction was important for generations gone by, it has become an absolute necessity today.

How can we teach our students to question what they read? (To give credit where credit is due, many of them do a much better job of this than we as adults.) I wish I had the complete answer. At least, as a start, I do feel this: Truth will only be important to them if first it is important to me.

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