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Research Toolkit: Quickly evaluate a website

Tools, techniques, and resources to help you find the information you need.

 Related Guides: Quickly Evaluate a Book, Quickly Evaluate an Article

 

What is the Web?

Key Facts:

  • The World Wide Web (aka "The Web") is the part of the Internet that contains websites. 
  • Websites store, link, and deliver webpages and can range in size from one page to thousands of pages. 
  • Only a tiny fraction of the web is available through an internet browser like Google. It is estimated that over 90% of the internet is made up of the "deep web", which includes research databases and library catalogs.

Who adds content to the Web?

  • Anyone with an Internet connection can create a website or post content on social media. 
  • No one edits or verifies general content on the Web.  
  • Most published content like books and periodicals are protected by copyright laws. Only the authors and/or publishers can provide permission to post the content online. Many people think that all information is available online for free, but this just isn't true.  

 

Watch - Becoming a Fact Checker

 




Fake news, biased reporting, and untruths are part of our information landscape. Sometimes it is easy to spot something that is untrue, but other times it's hard to tell the difference between what is real and what is fake. Some websites confuse even the most expert researchers like historians or college professors, but there is one group of researchers called fact checkers that rarely get fooled. These are the folks that make sure that what gets published is true and accurate. So what do fact checkers do to check the credibility of what they see online? Well, they have a few tricks up their sleeve. One thing they don't do is spend a lot of time closely reading the resource they are evaluating.

That's right! They don't spend all that much time reading an article from a website without knowing if the site can be trusted. They don't spend time looking at the "About Us" section, or looking for a list of references, or even checking the author's credentials. Instead they research what others have written about the site, the organization, or the author. They know that what others say about an organization is often more reliable than what the organization says about itself. When they do this research, they may use several different websites to find information about a publication. This is called "lateral reading". But how does the fact checker know if what others are saying about a site is credible? They consider three important criteria: process, expertise, and motivation.

Let's look first at process. Fact checkers know that reliable sources have a process for checking facts. Well-respected newspapers like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal employ fact checkers who ensure that reporters get their facts right prior to publishing and correct any mistakes in previous issues. Scholarly journals don't have fact checkers, but they do have a group of scholars that read, evaluate, and decide if something should be published. So if you come across something from a respected newspaper or a well-known academic journal, you can be fairly certain that what you are reading is accurate.

Second, fact checkers check for expertise. They know that who is deemed an expert depends on the context. A medical doctor is an expert on medical treatments, while an English professor is likely an expert on Shakespeare, and someone with many years of experience as a welder is an expert on the topic of welding. Fact checkers know that not all experts are PhDs or M.D.s. A football coach could be an expert on sports injuries or a food blogger could be an expert on the best restaurants in a particular city.

Lastly, fact checkers know that all publications have specific motivations and these can vary greatly from one publication to another. For example, a tabloid like the National Enquirer aims to entertain and make money. The more salacious news they publish, the more money they make. Contrast this to a website like Politico. Yes, they have a business model, but their main aim is to report American politics. So when you come across a website, consider its motivation and how it relates to their reliability. For example, if you come across an article on drug addiction, consider the source and their aim. Is the article published by a recovery center that is aimed at enrolling patients in their recovery program? Or is the article published by a medical journal reporting on a new experimental treatment for addiction?

So next time you come across an article and you're not sure whether or not it's credible, don't spend a lot of time looking at that website. Instead find out what others are saying about the organization that published the article and when looking at any resource, think about the process that that resource uses to check for facts. Also, evaluate the expertise of the author for that particular topic and, lastly, analyze the motivation of the resource. Is it trying to sell you something? Inform you? Or maybe entertain you?

This video is based on the work of the Stanford Education Group and the book Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers by Mike Caulfield. The content of this video was adapted from a similar video created by Arizona State University Library.

 


Review - Knowledge Check

 

 

Practice - Interactive Tutorial

 

Practice your fact checking skills with the interactive web evaluation tutorial.


Learn More About Fact-Checking

 

  • News Literacy Project - A nonpartisan education nonprofit, that provides resources for educators and the public to teach, learn and share the abilities needed to be smart, active consumers of news and information.

  • The Debunking Handbook - This handbook distills the most important research findings and current expert advice about debunking misinformation. Written by Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook. Free download available in several languages.

  • Callingbullshit.org - "Bullshit involves language, statistical figures, data graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener, with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence." Learn to spot it.

The content in this module was adapted from the University of Arizona Library's "Becoming a Fact Checker" tutorial.