Does anyone play the game of Gossip anymore? At summer camp, we would all sit in a circle around the campfire. The first person would whisper a short phrase to the one next to him, he would whisper what he heard to the next, and so on around the circle.

It was always funny to hear what the final product was as opposed to the original. "Bicycle shorts" became "My sister snorts." "California Dreamin'" became "I'm an ornery demon."

Now we've got this huge circle of people gathered around the Internet, and it's not always funny how things get passed along.

Many voices demand attention at this global campfire, and it seems there are at least as many mischief-makers as there are sincere communicators. There's rarely any way of knowing where any bit of "news" begins, much less knowing where on the ideological spectrum that originator stands.

Political polarization is just part of it. The Internet is filled with racial rants, religious diatribes, cultural hissy fits. It almost makes sports talk radio sound civilized.

Anybody's opinion becomes supercharged when it hits the Web, and like the proverbial lie, it can be around the world in a second. That "Forward" button is just too easy to hit.

Even when the message is well-meaning, that doesn't mean it's true.

I recently received -- and forwarded -- a touching e-mail chain letter about the bugle tune "Taps." The story about the notes to the music being found on a dead soldier's body during the Civil War strummed my heartstrings, and I wanted others to feel the same thing.

Only thing is, the story was not true. I made no effort to verify it, which I would have done in my profession as a journalist. In my hunger to pass along something positive to friends and family, I simply repeated what I had been told.

Thanks to a friend's gentle correction, I am sending up and down the e-mail chain a retraction and apology for my role in perpetuating a myth. I'm sorry I took the easy way of communication.

My friend referred me to a website -- www.snopes.com -- which has gained a reputation for verifying and debunking Internet rumors. The operators of Snopes are surrounded by magazines, newspapers, books, dictionaries, encyclopedias, almanacs -- a genuine library with pages and everything -- and when they track down and report on a rumor's veracity, they cite their sources.

That is what is missing from so many Internet stories: a source. Remember the old saying: "Consider the source"? If someone has a stake in the game, don't expect him to be objective.

Don't take a vegetarian's advice about the welfare of livestock. Don't ask Sarah Palin about Barack Obama. Don't ask me about cottage cheese.

As I surf among news websites, I learn what their slant is and judge their reports accordingly. In marksmanship this is known as "Kentucky windage." You take into account the wind conditions between you and the target, then intentionally aim off-target to compensate.

As opinions become more polarized -- true believers vs. the quacks, left wing vs. right wing, us vs. them -- we need to remember that while some issues are indeed black-and-white, not everything is.

We need to ask ourselves questions like: Is truth relative? Is this going to matter 10 years from now? Is this a battle worth fighting? If we care about finding an authoritative, objective voice, where do we go? Who doesn't have a bias?

If we agree that truth is not relative, we need to keep our ears tuned to detect truth, not just to reinforce what we already believe.

Even when we hear an affirming story about heroism, or generosity, or grace, repeating a lie does not make it true. It only makes us liars.

Capital Press staff writer Steve Brown is based in Salem. E-mail: sbrown@capitalpress.com.

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