Weighing Credibility


It used to be that a librarian or a teacher reviewed resources before students used them. Teachers often said not to believe everything just because it was in print, but that was difficult to take seriously. Most of what students read WAS educational fact. On the Web that is no longer true, and so it is extremely important that students know how to evaluate information that they read.

Here are some things that are life-long skills that both teachers and students need to be refining.

Reading URLs for information - A great deal of information can be gleaned from the URL of a website. It is possible to tell whether the site is commercial, government or educational. Students should know that a "tilde," the ~ symbol, could mean that this is a personal site on an official server. They should also be very wary if the word ‘blog’ appears anywhere, as this is a dead giveaway that the opinions and/or information is subjective.

Looking for information about the Author - The URL is not enough information. It is possible for a site to have a .edu ending and still be an inaccurate site created by an individual. Whenever a site is going to be used for documentation it is important to know WHO actually created the site. It is possible to do a search and maybe find out more about the author. Students need to develop a sense that just about anyone can create a web page (including themselves). Did another student write this page? Were they careful about their facts?

Reading the "About" section on a web site - Most web sites today have an "about us" section. This can be extremely helpful in giving the reader an idea about the goals of the web site.

Careful Reading of Websites - Many websites are made to look like other sites on purpose in order to spoof the reader. One in particular is the spoof "World Trade Organization" site that was created as a criticism of the World Trade Organization. Compare it to the real World Trade Organization site. Read carefully and it is clear that the former is not the WTO site. But many adults and children are NOT carefully reading; instead they skim, find what they think are looking for, and move on.

Careful Reading of Email – Careful reading helps to spot SPAM or more dangerous "Phishing" messages. Look for misspellings or missing information. A common one now claims that your eBay account needs attention, but whenever eBay sends you an Email message it will have your user name on it. These messages always call you "eBay user" instead of by your actual name.

Knowing How to Recognize Advertisements - Those ads have really gotten clever recently. The animated cartoons draw your eye and often it seems like the right place to click. Children and teens are more likely than adults to be fooled by advertisements on Web pages.

Looking for Dates - Students need to ask themselves if the information that they are getting is outdated. Web pages are often put up and forgotten. Most pages include some type of date on the page. This can show you when the page was last updated. If there is no date, which is often the case, then it is time for triangulation.

Triangulation - Students should know how to triangulate, which is a fancy way for saying finding three sources that agree on a fact. It is still possible to be wrong if you find three unreliable sources, but less likely. But be careful;; the three sources should not come from links. Often a Web page will have links to other sites that agree with it. Using these links is not triangulation. It is best when there are three completely different sources which all agree.

Being skeptical - The main thing is that students (and teachers) need to nourish a healthy skepticism. This does not mean being negative about everything, but is a way of digging deeper and being really sure about something before passing it on.

Submitted by:
Janice Friesen, Educator
Austin, TX

Next Tip: Windows Videos as Podcasts