Evaluating Websites: Helpful Advice from Journalists

A friend recently lent me the book Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload, by journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. It opens with what turns out to be an imaginative account of how news about the Three Mile Island nuclear accident would spread if the event were to occur in today’s media environment. Rather than being reported by the TV news anchors of yesteryear, whose broadcasts were not expected to make money and who were not encouraged to overdramatize, speculate, or leap to conclusions, the news today would be “fragmentary and often contradictory,” and blogs by those with a stake in the event would spring up pronouncing the event to be everything from a government hoax to a catastrophe.

The point of the parable is that “more of the responsibility for knowing what is true and what is not now rests with each of us as individuals.” Yes, “citizens have more voice,” but “the notion that a network of social gatekeepers will tell us that things have been established or proven is breaking down.”

We know this. That’s why information literacy has become one of the skills we teach, and why a major component of teaching that literacy is the evaluation of websites.

Why do business people need to know if a given website is creditable? The reasons are many. Perhaps the company needs current statistics about a certain demographic’s traits or behaviors; maybe it’s looking for a reputable contractor or vendor; perhaps it would like to measure its own practices against those of other companies; or maybe it needs a well-informed interpretation of local, national, or global events that could affect its operations.

Kovack and Rosenstiel recommend that we follow “the way of skeptical knowing” by asking ourselves the six questions in italics below. I’ve followed each with questions that can help students apply the questions to websites in particular.

1) What kind of information am I encountering? Is the information clear? Is it current? Is the content more fact based or assertion based? Who is the sponsor of the site? Does there appear to be any special motive behind the type of information that’s here and the way it’s presented?

2) Is the information complete, and if not, what is missing? What facts are here, and which seem to have been left out? Are there other important angles on this topic that have not been explored?

3) Who or what are the sources, and why should I believe them? What are the authors’ or guest experts’ credentials? Is their language objective? Might they have any reason to be biased one way or another?

4) What evidence is presented, and how was it tested or vetted? What kind of study or source does the information come from? What kind of evidence is here, and is there really enough of it to support the claims being made?

5) What might be an alternative explanation or understanding? Is there evidence that the author has maintained the necessary degree of objectivity? What other conclusions might one draw from the data than the ones the author has drawn?

6) Am I learning what I need to? Does the information provide sufficient answers to my questions? Does it seem to take into account larger issues and contexts? Are there links to other sources, and are those sources relevant, helpful, and trustworthy? Where else should I look to verify or expand this information?

Our students are capable of being skeptical, but their impatience works against them. If we can make them slow down long enough to assess the information they find on the Web, we can help them defend against the “blur” and make the information they pass on to others more reliable.

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