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Evaluating Web Sources: Who, What, When, Where, Why, How

Not all information presented on the Web is researched, subjected to oversight, or suitable for college research.  Here are some questions you can ask of your source to determine whether the content is trustworthy or suitable for your research.

1. WHO wrote it?
Is there an author listed as the creator of the article, page or site? Can you contact them? Do they list their credentials?

Find out more information by and about the author by doing a search on the Internet with the author’s name. You could also search within the library’s databases to look for other articles by or about the author.

2. WHO owns it?
Who owns the site and are they reputable? If the site owner is not visible, truncate parts of the URL (web address) to go back to main parts of the site.

example: http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/the-emotional-intelligence-deficit-how-it-holds-back-so-many-professionals/

You can find out more about the site owner at whois.net or backtrack to the main site: www.wharton.upenn.edu to find out that this article came from The Wharton School (business college) at the University of Pennsylvania.

3. WHO links to it?
Is this site listed in a subject directory? Take a look the MCC Library's Research Guides , Austin Community College's Research Guides, or the Library of Congress Virtual Reference Shelf.

Do other reputable sites link to this site? To find out, search in Google with <link:root part of URL of main site>

example: link:wharton.upenn.edu AND site:edu

4. WHAT is on the page to add to or take away from the value of the information?
Be wary of 1) offensive language or photos, 2) sponsored ads, 3) poor design of the site, 4) required fees or registration, except for scholarly journals and journal sites, 5) no identification of sources used or cited, or 6) the site or page lacking identification of the author, site owner, or contact information for the author or owner.

5. WHEN was the information created or updated?
Is there a publication date given? Often a page may have been updated even if the information included on the page was not. Look for dates associated with the publication of the information or article.  This is particularly important with subject areas in which currency of information is critical (medicine, nursing, technology, etc).

6. WHERE is this site?
While this is no longer a hard and fast rule, some Internet domains provide higher quality information than others. Organizational (org), governmental (gov) or educational sites (edu) will have more oversight in the content hosted.  Is the page or site part of a blog, discussion forum, or other site providing user opinions rather than scholarly analysis?

7. WHY did the owner or author publish the information?
What are their intentions? Is the purpose to give a balanced and researched view of a topic, inform, educate, persuade, or train? Is the purpose to entertain, sell, misinform, sensationalize, promote a certain bias agenda or fictionalize? Is the content opinion, personal narrative, verifiable fact, or researched information?

8. HOW can the information on the web page or site benefit your paper or project?
Is the content from the source appropriate for your assignment?  Is the article long enough for your informational needs? Are you being asked for scholarly analysis, factual reporting of events, evidence for a research claim, statistics, or general information?  Make sure the reading level, sources, and information are all suitable for your paper or project.

Reading a Web URL

URL stands for Uniform Resource Locater and is the unique address for a web page or site.  It is also referred to as "web address."  The URL of a given web site will appear in what is known as the URL bar of the browser, as shown in the image below.

Screenshot of Purdue Online Writing Lab URL bar

To understand more about URLs, let's take a look at the parts and what they represent in the following address: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/media/pdf/20091250615234_747.pdf

http or https - HyperText Transfer Protocol, in other words, the type of information being transfered is hypertext

often you will see www which is optional but represents a page on the World Wide Web

purdue - the secondary domain, usually indicating the organization, company or college hosting the content

edu - the primary web domain; others are .com, .gov, .mil, etc.

owl and engl - these are subdomains on the purdue network and usually represent departments within the organization

media and pdf - represent directories on the server and pdf is within the directory media

20091250615234_747.pdf - file name and filetype for the document on the web site; htm or html would be the most common file type for web pages.

Beware of Fake or False Information

With the introduction of the World Wide Web, teachers and information professionals have long been telling students to carefully evaluate information that they intend to use in their research.  Fake news is a popular label amid the increase of inaccurate information and concern about its impact on public opinion.  Whether such news is intentionally misleading or due to inadequate fact checking, carefully examine all sources of information you read and intend to share.

There are many websites and news sources that engage in activities that can lead to the spread of false or fake information to readers:

1.  Sensationalized article titles that are misleading - click-bait.  The authors and publishers intentionally use headlines that "bait" readers into clicking their link, only to find that the article was all or partly false, satirical, exaggerated, taken out of context, or unsubstantiated.  Increasingly, we have seen articles posted on social media and discovered firsthand or witnessed the impact of viral fake or incorrect information.  Examples are Breitbart.com (Screenshot) and WND.com (Screenshot). 

2.  Reporting unreliable, unsubstantiated or potentially misleading information deliberately to stir up controversy or conspiracy.  Often, in these articles, the sources are not cited, the text is often in all caps, improper images and ads are displayed and hateful name calling is also used. An example is 70 News (screenshot), which is also full of click-bait headlines.

3.  Deliberate fake or satirical news intended to mislead or entertain.  Some sites will take real news captions and attach false stories.  Some sites are designed for satire and entertainment and can be useful to educate yourself about media literacy and reading with critical thinking. The Onion, The Babylon Bee, and World News Daily Report publish outlandish fake news for entertainment. 

4.  Even some reputable sources headline with titles meant to generate use or make mistakes in their reporting.  Sometimes, wrong information simply gets through to the public, even when the reporters are checking sources and editors are proofing content.  Statistical information published in an article, even by a reputable source, may be sensationalized or misrepresented by other sources or the publisher may give a catchy title that doesn't tell the whole story. This is not deliberate fake news or intentional deception, but due to human error or the desire to attract readers. An example can be seen from USA Today in November 2016 (screenshot).

Because of these possible conditions, use caution when citing or sharing articles without evaluation.  If a headline or story seems outrageous, take a closer look.  Be very skeptical of article titles that start with a number and some sensational wording or revealing of a secret (ex: "10 Actors You Didn't Know were Dead" or "12 Ways to Ruin Your Children").  Remember that misinformation or "fake news" is not specific to a certain political side.  Do not assume that just because you agree with an article and its ideology, that fact checking is unnecessary.  And don't assume that because you disagree with an author or article, that within it exists inaccurate information (this is known as confirmation bias).  Doing further research on your own through mainstream news sources, the library databases, TruthorFiction.com, FactCheck.org and Snopes.com is helpful in order to recognize false, incomplete or misleading news stories.

Sources consulted:

Dreid, N. (2016, November 17). Meet the Professor Who's Trying to Help You Steer Clear of Clickbait. Retrieved December 05, 2016, from http://www.chronicle.com/article/Meet-the-Professor-Who-s/238441

Valenza, J. (2016, November 26). Truth, truthiness, triangulation [Web log post]. Retrieved December 5, 2016, from http://blogs.slj.com/neverendingsearch/2016/11/26/truth-truthiness-triangulation-and-the-librarian-way-a-news-literacy-toolkit-for-a-post-truth-world/

Zimdars, M. (2016). False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and Satirical. Retrieved December 05, 2016, from https://docs.google.com/document/d/10eA5-mCZLSS4MQY5QGb5ewC3VAL6pLkT53V_81ZyitM/preview

See also: Kessler, Glenn. "The Fact Checker's guide for detecting fake news." Washington Post, WP Company, 22 Nov. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2016/11/22/the-fact-checkers-guide-for-detecting-fake-news

Kiely, Eugene, and Lori Robertson. “How to Spot Fake News.” FactCheck.org, FactCheck.org, 19 Dec. 2016, www.factcheck.org/2016/11/how-to-spot-fake-news/.