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Evaluating Media in the Age of Fake News: Evaluating Websites

A guide to figuring out the reliability of news and media content

Introduction

Newspaper with "Life on Mars!" headlineIt's not always easy to tell true from false on the internet or in the news. 

Media outlets want your eyeballs; scammers want your money; paid trolls want to make trouble.

Use these tools to evaluate the media you consume.


Want to take a deeper dive into issues of media and information literacy?  Try this free ebook: Introduction to College Research, by Walter D. Butler, Aloha Sargent, and Kelsey Smith.  It's an Open Educational Resource!

Criteria for Evaluating a Website

When you're looking at a website or an article, especially if you are planning to use it for an assignment, you need to check how reliable it is.  Here are some basic criteria: 

CURRENCY:
  • When was the site published?
  • When was the 'last update'?  That tells you whether the author is still maintaining the page.
  • Are the links still working, or are they dead?
  • If a website has not been updated in a few years, it won't have the most current information.
  • Do not use undated statistical information; that's a sign that something is wrong.  Good statistics always have a date.
RELEVANCE:
  • Does this article really talk about your topic?
  • Is the information written at the right level for you or for your audience?  If it's too simple, it may be missing important information.  Will your audience understand highly technical jargon?
  • Is it the right kind of resource for the assignment or job that you're doing?
    • For research papers, look for scholarly or professional publications, either in print or in the Library databases.
    • If you are using web sources, evaluate the contents carefully.
AUTHORITY:
authority icon
  • Who wrote the page or article?   What entity is responsible for the webpage?
    • What makes that person an expert on the topic?  Do they have any credentials?
    • If no author is given, check the webpage carefully.  Does the webpage belong to a credible organization?
    • It should be easy to find this information.   A page that has no author information and no information about the responsible agency is probably not reliable.  Names, contacts, and address should be available.   Consider looking up the address on Maps to see if it's really there.
  • Check the domain name. 
    • Educational, government, or credible non-profit organizations are usually more reliable (but be careful; a school site may simply host anything produced by students or faculty; an organization may look good while being dishonest).
    • .gov belongs to government sites.  .edu belongs to schools.  These cannot be purchased.
    • .org and .com domains can be purchased by anyone.  A commercial page may be more interested in selling a product than in giving complete information.  A personal page should be carefully investigated.
    • .ru is Russia, and .co is Colombia.  These two are considered suspect.
    • Limit your search to certain domain types by adding "site:.edu" or "site:.gov" to your search terms
  • Anonymous webpages are not reliable.  There should be something besides an email address.
ACCURACY:compass icon
  • Check for errors in spelling or grammar.  Mistakes can indicate an overall lack of accuracy or professionalism.  (A professional look does not mean that a website is credible, though!  It's easy for anyone to produce a fancy website.)
  • Likewise, MATERIAL WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS is suspect.
  • Look for well-written, well-organized material.
  • Is the information cited?  Where did it come from?
  • Are the citations valid, or are they taken out of context?  Follow them up to make sure; scammers selling fraudulent health products often cite studies that are irrelevant or that even contradict their claims, because they know people don't check.
  • What is the overall quality of the website?  If it features a lot of strange claims, maybe your article isn't good quality.
  • A credible article will offer opposing viewpoints, not just one perspective.
  • A credible article will usually have footnotes or other documentation.  It should also have copyright information.
  • Well-chosen, organized links to outside sources are a good indication. 
  • Dead links indicate a neglected webpage.
PURPOSE:
  • What is the intention of the article? 
    • Does it take a particular position?
    • Is it trying to sell you something?
    • Is it trying to persuade you of something?
  • Can you see a bias in this material?
  • Look for an "About" link to find out more about the organization's purpose.
  • Check for links to related information that is from outside sources. 
    • A lack of links to outside sources may indicate a problem.
    • Visiting related links can tell you more about the organization's purpose or viewpoint.

Online Verification Skills - Videos

The following series of videos walks you through verifying online sources. They provide a good set of skills for when you are searching for any type of online information. 

Here are the following three videos in the series: 

Online Verification Skills — Video 2: Investigate the Source

Online Verification Skills — Video 3: Find the Original Source

Online Verification Skills — Video 4: Look for Trusted Work

 

Videos are provided through NewsWisea news literacy program to provide school-aged Canadians an understanding of the role of journalism in a healthy democracy and the tools to find and filter information online.

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