These are confusing times we live in. The sheer amount of information at our fingertips is staggering and it really is hard to know what’s truth and what’s fiction. Before the Internet we had to rely on published works *collective gasp*, but the cool thing was, you could put some trust in them. You could rest relatively easy in the knowledge that there were a team of proofreaders and editors somewhere along the chain of publication, watching for errors like hawks. Since those halcyon days, the Internet seems to have made us all somewhat more “laissez-faire” when it comes to the quality of our information.
These days, most people get their information online. I don’t know about you, but “Google it” is a common phrase in my experience. With millions of information sources, how can we know what to trust? Let’s look at some of the ways we can spot websites that are more reliable than others.
To give you a little background, what we’re looking for here is “journalistic integrity“. Think of it as the writer’s “Hippocratic Oath”. We are looking for a promise from the source to provide the truth in the most unvarnished way. We are looking for legitimacy.
Merriam-Webster defines “legitimate” as:
2: being exactly as purposed : neither spurious nor false <a legitimate grievance> <a legitimate practitioner>
3a : accordant with law or with established legal forms and requirements <a legitimate government>b : ruling by or based on the strict principle of hereditary right <a legitimate king>
4: conforming to recognized principles or accepted rules and standards <a legitimate advertising expenditure> <a legitimate inference>
We want to find websites that show documentation such as unbiased statistics, unaltered video or original transcripts, but we don’t want to stop there! We also want that documentation source to use reliable citations.
Citations carry their own qualifications depending on the audience for your information. If you’re just looking up facts for your own curiosity, the sources don’t need to be as stringent as when you are writing a Master’s thesis. If you cite “facts” from nikeyesblog.com (or some such) on your thesis, I assure you that unless it adds a very specific value from a trusted source (the leading expert on etymology, for example), it will not fly. Honestly, probably not even then.
Watch your domains. Anyone can buy a .com, .net, .biz, and even .org. Anyone with the will to do so can set up a website with any of those domains. Sites that end in .gov and .edu are, by and large, the most accurate and reliable when it comes to citation standards because they limit ownership. These endings signify that a site is affiliated with a government organization or an institute of higher learning.
Why Trust .gov Sites?
Government sites, or .gov sites, are only available to genuine government entities. Try to buy a .gov site–it can’t happen unless you can prove that you are truly a U.S. government organization. For example, the AARP is a large organization with a fair amount of capital and political clout, but there is no AARP.gov.
Depending on how deep your conspiracy theories go, you may not trust any political sites. 😉 Well and good, however, government sites have to follow certain protocols and would immediately be called out by political fact checking organizations if there were errors (think “whistle blowers” like Politifact who cite all sources of information).
Why Trust .edu Sites?
There is a particularly good reason for trusting sites that belong to institutes of higher learning: peer reviews. Studies performed by college-level institutions are peer reviewed which means that other specialists from within the field must check the work for factual errors. Experiments will be duplicated for accuracy. Spelling and grammar problems should be non-existent. Let’s just say that the peer review process can be a trial by fire–if there’s an error, someone will find it! Peer reviewers take their job very seriously because they themselves could potentially be viewed with scorn if they fail to spot problems others find. Information released by .edu sites like http://ethics.journalism.wisc.edu/resources/digital-media-ethics/ source their information as a matter of course.
Spotting Bad Information:
Does the website have numerous grammatical errors? Constant errors in spelling and grammar should be red flags when searching information online. While every site experiences the occasional mistake, take note if they happen a lot or fail to post retractions of incorrect information.
Are there more than a few scattered sources of the same information? Meaning, does the information you found only appear on one or two sites or can it be found on many sites?
Does the website provide links to original source information? For example, if you are looking to see whether the berries you just ate are a poisonous variety, would you trust information that came from a Harvard botanical publication linked to numerous citations from experts in the field with lots of visual references or John Doe at nikeyesplantlore.biz? Maybe nikeyesplantlore.biz is chock-full of great information (and John Doe might be a great guy!) but who are you going to trust with your life? Although, if you are eating berries before checking them you may want to refer to 911emergency services first… just sayin’.
Are the links leading to trusted, verifiable outside sources or just different pages within the same website? Look at the actual web address. Does it have an affiliation with a different site? If so, is that site legitimate? Let’s say you’re looking at nikeyesblog.com. You find a “fact” that is cited by hyperlink. You click the link and it sends you to nikeyesblog.com/nikeyesversionoftruth. You are only getting the opinion of the person running that blog–no one else.
Check for dates. The Internet has been around for some time and the information may be outdated or recently disproven. Try to find information sources that are current, less than a year or two old at best, but no later than five years if possible.
Here’s one article that provides both good and bad sourcing in one page. The author makes some excellent points about the various news sources and has one great citation regarding the truth behind some accusations relating to the Sandy Hook shooting. The problem is, aside from the mention of some publications being longstanding and/or Pulitzer winners, the author doesn’t say how they came to the conclusion that the news sources were legitimate. Saying the New York Times “is still America’s flagship news source” without citing that assertion somehow, leaves it up to the reader to research whether that statement is true. While we might agree with them, this person could just be expressing their opinion for all we know…
Now that you have some ideas of what to look for, see if you can spot some examples of good and bad sourcing. Please share if you find a really stellar example (good or bad)! Happy hunting!