Today is Wikipedia Day – a day to celebrate the creation of a website known for its breadth of knowledge, though not its accuracy – so it’s a good time to think about research.
As a librarian, I see a lot of people searching for information on a daily basis. Some are researching for school, for fun, or to learn about the world around them. I also see a lot of people frustrated by conflicting sources, both online and in print media. While no article is necessarily 100% accurate, there are a few ways you can separate the better ones from the worse ones. I’m going to focus on online news articles, though some of these points can be applied to other types of research, too.
1. Consider the Content
First, check the date when the article was posted. Even if the information was accurate as people knew it to be at the time, it might not be current. If it’s recent enough for the topic, then it’s time to move on to the article itself.
Headlines have always been designed to grab our attention, from the days of newsboys selling papers on the street to today’s clickbait Internet stories. That means that the headlines are often misleading. They might exaggerate claims or take facts out of context. They might even be ads disguised as news, so read the full text of the article and look around the page for anything that labels it as an advertisement or sponsored content. The text might also contain quotes, so consider those as well. The people quoted may or may not be experts, or they might not have said the quotes at all. Try to figure out how relevant they are to the story and how likely it is that they would’ve said those things. If they make some startling or groundbreaking claim, other sources are probably reporting on it, too. You can also verify some claims on fact-checking websites like FactCheck.org or PolitiFact.com for reference.
After you read the text, look at the images that come with the article. Sometimes authors search the web for attention-grabbing pictures that support what they’re saying, even if the pictures don’t come from the event that they’re writing about. If you want to find where the images come from, you can do a reverse image search through Google. Open up Google Images (images.google.com) in one window and then open another window next to it with the news article, so that you can see both at the same time. Click the image from the article and drag it into the Google search box and see where else the image appears online. (You can also drag in images that you’ve saved to your computer.)
2. Consider the Source
Before you accept anything that you read online, look at the person writing the article and the website the hosts it. The author should be qualified to write on the subject and have some sort of credentials in the field. These will sometimes be listed on an article or on the website, but you should also look around the web to see if anyone else will support or refute those claims.
The website should also be reputable, and you can start researching it in the “About Us” page, where you can find the purpose of the website. If the website isn’t transparent about its purpose, that’s a bad sign. Reading can also make you aware of the site’s biases, since not many are completely neutral. That doesn’t necessarily make the facts inaccurate, but it does color the way the site reports news. As you’re looking around the site, make sure it also has contact information, a standard-looking domain name, and working links whenever it links to other sites.
3. Consider the Perspective
How you read articles often depends on your mindset. Sometimes we disregard articles that don’t agree with things that we already believe, but that doesn’t mean that they’re wrong. Even if the article concerns a debatable issue, it’s often worthwhile to consider other perspectives from respected sources, since they may use legitimate facts to support their conclusions, even if you don’t agree with those conclusions.
I’m getting some serious topics out of the way this month, and my next article will be about plagues in classic literature. Let me know in the comments below if you have any favorites!