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“Brandeis

Evaluating Online Information

A guide to thinking critically about the information you find online.

Introduction

Clickbait headlines, made-up stories, partisan bias: these and other obstacles mean that getting the real story sometimes takes a couple of extra steps. As scholars, news consumers, and often news sharers, we're responsible for making sure we don't rely on or share bad or misleading stories. 

Things to Consider

  • Check the article's date! Old articles sometimes get shared around social media as though they were new. And if you're looking for contemporary reporting of, say, the 2005 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, you want to be sure you're not accidentally relying on articles about the 2013 reauthorization. 
  • Approach unfamiliar outlets with caution. Some outlets fact-check thoroughly; some aren't so thorough; and some pretend to be a legitimate outlet while actively deceiving readers. Try to verify the story in multiple sources, and check out the sections below for more on identifying bias and made-up stories.
  • The author and the outlet matter! Look at the author's bio and/or at other articles they've published, if possible. Does the article's topic fall within their expertise? Or is it something they may not know much about? Is the outlet known to be biased, or do other articles it publishes look suspect?

Fact-Checking

Want to fact-check...

Want to dig deeper? Mike Caulfield has written an excellent guide to fact-checking online sources.  A couple of key strategies he mentions:

  • Go upstream to find the information's source, then assess that source.
  • Use Google Images or TinEye to find where else an image has been used. Does it really show the event, place, and time that it claims to? (In Google Images, click the camera icon in the search bar to search by image.)

Bias in the News

What is media bias? Almost no one is perfectly neutral - including journalists. Whether consciously or unconsciously, one's personal perspective can come through in their writing. You should avoid pieces with extreme bias; but completely avoiding all bias is impossible and not that useful.The important thing is to be aware of the bias as you read, which will help you sort out opinion from fact. 

Identifying bias. When reading, ask yourself - what does the writer think about the events described, or what do they want you to think? If it's easy to tell, you may be dealing with a strong bias; if it's hard or impossible to tell, the piece may be closer to neutral. You can also use outside resources to learn about an outlet's bias: for a quick check on an outlet's political leanings, try AllSides.

Read from multiple perspectives. Reading about the same facts with different "spin" can help you sort out the fact from the opinion. AllSides helpfully gathers articles written on the same topic from different perspectives.

"Fake News"

False headline from Empire News: "Pandas Will Go Extinct Within The Next Few Months, Study Finds," by "Bob the Empire News Potato"

Made-up news stories are nothing new - but they've been getting a lot of buzz lately, for good reason. A few tips:

  • Know your enemy. Try browsing around a couple of sites from Snopes' Field Guide to Fake News Sites to get a sense of what the sites and articles can look like.
  • Some themes to watch out for: extreme claims or gross-outs, emotionally-charged language, quotes from made-up organizations or people (try Googling "[organization] and [name]" to find out), no author or author with no credentials ("Bob the Empire News Potato")
  • Verify with other sources. If the article doesn't link to any sources, and no one else is reporting it, it's probably not true. 

(Video by FlackCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and "the political literacy companion site" to FactCheck.org)