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Hot on the Web

Judging the quality of online information

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on February 11, 2005
(Issue 2306, Due Diligence)

One of the (many) hats I wear is as a part-time instructor at Point Loma Nazarene University, where I teach a course titled Electronic Journalism. And one of the components of that class is online searches.

Reporters aren't the only ones turning to the Internet to find information, of course. The 'Net is the most incredible and vast information resource ever even thought of by man.

But with that vastness comes a lot of, well, crud. Myths and exaggerations and outright lies.

So how do you separate the wheat from the chaff?

Remembering a few simple tools can help a lot in judging the accuracy of information you find in an online search (or just browsing).

Be skeptical

One thing I don't have to emphasize much to a journalism class is the need to be skeptical – to not believe everything you read. They've had that drilled into their heads since freshman year.

But the rest of us sometimes have to remind ourselves that not everything we run across is actually true – like all those inspirational stories that we get in e-mail from family and friends about some kid in the hospital somewhere who's collecting postcards, only it turns out he's 35 now, and fully recovered, and the hospital is begging people to stop sending in the damn postcards.

Determining the authentic

How can we judge whether information is authentic online?

Well, the same way we do in the physical world.

For example, if you're at city hall or the courts looking at a document, you're pretty darn sure that the clerk handed you a copy of an official report or form.

In this example, you're already using certain deductive skills to help you authenticate the information. The fact that you're in a government office tells you that the probability of the information you're receiving being true is pretty high.

Those same deductive skills can be used online. For instance, if you're reading an article on the New York Times web site, you likely will assign it a higher probability of authenticity than if you're on the web site of a political action committee. Why? A large, mainstream newspaper like the Times has a track record of mostly getting it right, and it's purpose is to report on the news fairly and neutrally. A political action committee's purpose is to advance a particular point of view, and so it's reliability as a neutral source of information isn't going to be as strong as a newspaper's.

Whenever you come across a Web site, you can determine fairly quickly how reliable its information is. Is the organization running the Web site clearly labeled? Does the URL correspond to the group claiming ownership? (And you can always go to and run a Whois search to see who really owns that domain.)

Other things to look for are clearly labeled contact links – does the site host list a physical address? A phone number? If these check out, if the group is willing to publicly identify itself with directions for locating it, then we can surmise they're probably on the up and up. Con artists don't generally make it easy to track them down.

Once we've determined that a group is upfront, then we can start figuring out what their agenda is. If it's a group you've heard of, then you probably are already familiar with their reputation.

So, if you're looking up information on accidental gun shootings, you might find figures at the Web sites of both Handgun Control Inc. and the National Rifle Association. But a little digging will show that one organization is organized to support stricter gun regulation, and the other to oppose stricter gun regulation. Given this, you can weigh their competing claims with a better sense of context.

Context is king

And that context is really about all we can arrive it in judging the accuracy of information we find online. A government report may or may not have bias, but it is at least supposed to be neutral. Same goes for a mainstream news outlet, like the New York Times or CNN.

Political advocacy groups don't have that same mantle of trust. The NRA or Planned Parenthood aren't in business to promulgate neutral, bias-free information.

So when you're finding information online and trying to figure out how trustworthy it is, just keep the above thoughts on context in mind.

  • Who claims to own the site?
  • Are they known to me?
  • What is their purpose or reputation?
  • Are contact points clearly labeled?

Answer those four questions, and you've gone a long way in determining the legitimacy of any info you've found.