First things first: Thinking Critically about Information (cont.)
As I mentioned last week, the criteria for evaluating resources should be used to evaluate all sources of information, both print and online, but you need to be especially careful with online resources because there are no filters—editors, publishers, reviewers, etc.—between you, the user, and the information you find. There are four main criteria for evaluating information sources: Purpose, Authority, Accuracy, and Currency. Today, we’ll look at Authority, Accuracy, and Currency.
#2 – Authority
Like any print resource, you need to ask questions. Who are the author(s) and/or sponsor(s) of the web site? Are the credentials (education, occupation, experience, etc.) of the author(s) listed? Do these qualify him or her to write about this subject? And most importantly, can you verify the credentials listed? Remember, anyone can post anything on the Internet. If someone claims to be a professor from a university, go to that university’s website and confirm that they are indeed listed on the faculty—in the discipline they claimed on the resource. Anyone can say they are an M.D. It’s up to you to confirm whether or not they are, so check the hospital in which they claim to work to be certain they are.
Another helpful hint is to check the site’s “about” or “contact” information. Does the site list a phone number, physical address, or e-mail link you can use to verify the legitimacy of the author(s) or sponsoring group? This can be important, because there are organizations out there intentionally trying to mislead people. There used to be a website with the address www.martinlutherking.org. Much of the content on Martin Luther King, Jr., was extremely negative, and it wasn’t until you clicked on the sponsor of the page that you learned it was run by a white supremacist group! How did that happen? They simply bought the domain name before The King Center got online. Thankfully, when you enter the above address now, you are redirected to www.thekingcenter.org, which is the official site of The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. I don’t know if it took a lawsuit or a lot of money to get the other URL back, but I was pleased to see it.
This is the most challenging of the evaluation criteria, because to prove accuracy, you either need to know and trust the author(s)/sponsor(s), or you need to do a lot of extra research to confirm the information is true. To do the latter, you again need to ask some questions. Can you verify the information you find on one site in another resource? Is the coverage objective? If not, is the bias clearly stated? Has the information been peer-reviewed or refereed?
Always remember, just because something is clearly written from a subjective point of view doesn’t mean you cannot use it, but it does mean you need to keep that bias in mind when you do. Even “peer-reviewed” doesn’t necessarily mean unbiased anymore. I see stories all the time about top U.S. universities or scholarly publications censoring research by scholars who do not follow the politically correct position of the day. Everyone has biases—even scholars. It’s up to the user to recognize that fact and use information accordingly.
This is the easiest criteria to assess, though it also rates an “it depends,” in terms of usability. To find the currency of a web page, look for a copyright date. What is the date on the web page? How frequently is it updated? Is some of the information obviously out of date?
Sometimes, it doesn’t matter. For example, if your story takes place on the Oregon Trail in 1854, you don’t need to worry about when a webpage was last updated. On the other hand, if you’re writing a story about a family facing a hurricane, and you want to know how FEMA responds today, you’ll probably want to find a website that mentions Florence rather than one that only talks about Katrina or Sandy.
One quick warning when looking for really up-to-date information: If a website says it was last updated on the very day you’re looking at it, be wary, and check back again tomorrow. If it is always updated on the day you view it, chances are the webmaster is using an automatic update tool, so it always looks fresh and new.
Next week we’ll start looking at how to find online resources for details that can help build a story by examining special considerations when researching cultural information.