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Fake ​News and Information Literacy: Evaluating Your Sources

This guide is used in ID 150 Fake News but can be used in any course.

Evaluating Your Sources

This page will help you evaluate an information source by explaining some of the key aspects you will want to analyze.

Evaluating Social Media

Paul Bradshaw, a leading digital media expert and teacher in Europe, writes the Online Journalism Blog. In 2011, he wrote a post that provides a variety of basic guidelines about online verification with a section related to social media:

How long has the account existed? If it’s only existed since a relevant story broke (e.g. Jan Moir’s column; an earthquake where someone claims to be a witness) then it’s likely to be opportunistic.

Who did the person first ‘follow’ or ‘friend’? These should be personal contacts, or fit the type of person you’re dealing with. If their first follow is ReadWriteWeb, then it may be that you’re not actually dealing with a Daily Mail columnist.

Who first followed them? Likewise, it should be their friends and colleagues.

Who has spoken to them online? Ditto.

Who has spoken about them? Here you may find friends and colleagues, but also people who have rumbled them. But don’t take anyone else’s word for their existence unless you can verify them too.

Can you correlate this account with others? The Firefox extension Identify is a useful tool here: it suggests related social network accounts which you can then try to cross-reference. For companies the Chrome extension Polaris Insights does something similar for companies.

Critical Evaluation of Information Sources

In evaluating the credibility of an information source there are several key areas to consider:

  • the Authority of the author and the background of the publisher
  • the Objectivity of the author
  • the Quality of the work
  • the Currency of the work
  • the Relevancy of the work

The tables below provide a framework for investigating these aspects of an information source, whether it be an article in a journal or newspaper or encyclopedia; a book; a web site; a government document; or any other source upon which you're relying. Not all questions will apply in all situations, and not all responses need to be positive ones - this is not a scorecard. The questions are intended to help you think critically about information sources.

Evaluation Tables

To evaluate authority:

Ask the Questions Find Answers
Who is the author?
  • Most common places to find the name of the author:
    • Title page (book or report)
    • Title information on first page (articles, book chapters)
    • End of the article (encyclopedias)
    • Top or bottom of page (web pages)
What are the author's credentials?
  • Relevant university degree
  • Institutional affiliation (where do they work?)
  • Relevant field or employment experience
  • Past writings
  • Examine the item for information about the author
  • Search the web for the author's home page
  • Search academic databases and the online catalog for other works by the author
What is the author's reputation among peers?
  • Cited in articles, books or bibliographies?
  • Mentioned in your textbook or by your professor?
  • Use indexes that track citations to find articles citing your author
Who is the publisher?
  • Commercial, trade, institutional, other?
  • Known for quality and/or scholarly publications?
  • Basic values or goals?
  • Specialization?
  • Examine the publisher's web site
  • The Writer's Market (Knight Reference Desk) will give brief descriptions of publishers and the material they seek.
Is the author associated with a reputable institution or organization?
  • What is the organization's mission?
  • What are its basic values or goals?
  • Is it national or international?
  • Who makes up its membership?
  • Examine the institution's or organization's web site

To evaluate objectivity:

Ask the Questions
Find Answers

Does the author state the goals for this publication?

Are they to inform, explain, or advocate?

Are they to sell a service or serve as a soapbox?

Skim the foreword, preface, abstract and/or introduction of the work.
Does the author exhibit a particular bias?
  • Is there a commitment to a point of view?
  • Do they acknowledge bias?
  • Are both sides of a controversial issue presented?
  • Skim the abstract and/or introduction
  • Skim the author's conclusions
  • Examine the work for:
    • Inflammatory language
    • Images or graphic styles (e.g., text in color or boldface type) to persuade you of the author's point of view
    • Author's arguments or supporting facts
    • A bibliography that does or does not include multiple points of view
Does the information appear to be valid and well-researched?
  • Are arguments and conclusions supported by evidence?
  • Are opposing points of view addressed?
  • Are authoritative sources cited?
  • Verify facts and statistics with a reliable source
  • Examine cited sources for authority and objectivity
  • FactCheck, a service of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, is useful for current topics.

To evaluate quality:

Ask the Questions Find Answers
Is the information well-organized?
  • Logical structure
  • Main points clearly presented
  • Text flows well (not choppy or stilted)
  • Author's argument is not repetitive
If it's a book, look at the table of contents to get an idea of the work and skim the text itself.
  • Has the author used good grammar?
  • Are there spelling or typographical errors?
Are the graphics (images, tables, charts, diagrams) appropriate?
  • Clearly labeled
  • Not sensational
  • Understandable without explanatory text
If a web page, is the information reliable? Evaluating Web Pages and Websites

To evaluate currency:

Ask the Questions Find Answers
When was it published?
  • Look for a publication or copyright date on the:
    • Title page (books, journals)
    • Reverse of the title page (books)
    • Cover (journals, magazines, newspapers)
    • Table of contents (journals, magazines)
    • Bottom of the page (web sites)
  • Dates on web pages may indicate:
    • When the page was created
    • When the page was published on the web
    • When the page was last revised
Is your topic one that requires current information? Topic areas requiring the most up-to-date information include:
  • Science
  • Medicine
  • Current events
Has this source been updated in a subsequent edition? Search WorldCat  for a more recent edition

To evaluate relevancy:

Ask the Questions Find Answers
Is the content appropriate for your research topic or assignment?
  • Is the source scholarly or popular?
  • Can you identify the format/medium (e.g., book, article, government report, web site, etc.)
  • Is the content primary, secondary, or bibliographic?
  • Primary sources include first-hand accounts of an event, diaries, photographs, etc
  • Secondary sources include books or articles that come after the event and analyze it
  • Bibliographic sources include encyclopedias and dictionaries that provide background
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