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Fake News vs. Real News: Tips for Evaluating Information

How to determine actual and reliable information on the internet and in social media feeds

Why check for accuracy?

A Finder's Guide to Facts

A Finder's Guide to Facts by Steve Inskeep at NPR. Read the article to learn why these things matter and find out more.

  • Is the story so outrageous you can't believe it? Maybe you shouldn't. Respect the voice inside you that says, "What?" 
  • Is the story so outrageous you do believe it? That's also a warning sign. Many stories play on your existing beliefs. If the story perfectly confirms your worst suspicions, look for more information.
  • Does the headline match the article? Many compelling headlines don't.
  • Does the article match the news story it's lifted from? Many sites rewrite other news articles to fit the political slant of their presumed audience. Look for links to original sources and click through and see what the original says.
  • Are quotes in context? Look for the sentences before and after the quote that makes your blood boil. If the article fails to give them, that's a warning sign.
  • Is the story set in the future? t's hard to get firsthand reporting from there. Any story that tells you what will happen should be marked down 50 percent for this reason alone.
  • Does the story attack a generic enemy? Vague denunciations of "Washington" or "the media" or "Trump supporters" or "the left" should be marked down 99 percent. Good reporting doesn't make these kinds of generalizations and is specific about who is making a claim about what.
  • Are you asked to rely on one killer factoid? Not a good idea. If a hacked document "proves" an implausible conspiracy, look for the context that shows what the document really means. As for photos and video, use Ronald Reagan's old slogan: trust but verify. If there's any doubt about a "stunning" video, see if more traditional sources link to it. 
  • Who is the news source, anyway? Traditional news brands may occasionally get it wrong — sometimes hugely wrong — but at least you know where to find them and hold them accountable. Less prominent news sites might carry compelling stories — but expect them to show you who they are and where they gathered information.
  • Does the news source appear to employ editors? Many news organizations produce stories that are checked before publication. Others don't. It's a big deal. Hiring an editorial staff shows the publication's respect for you, and matters more than "political bias." 
  • Are you told, "Trust me"? Don't. It's the post-trust era! Expect everyone to show where their facts come from, link to underlying articles, and demonstrate that they've argued honestly.

Evaluating Information

Stanford researchers conducted a study on teen's abilities to discern reliable information online. Their findings are discouraging. Read the executive summary of Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning.

 

"Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak" (Evaluating Information 4).

Tips for Analyzing News Sources

Tips for analyzing news sources:

 
  • Avoid websites that end in “lo” ex: Newslo. These sites take pieces of accurate information and then packaging that information with other false or misleading “facts” (sometimes for the purposes of satire or comedy).

  • Watch out for websites that end in “.com.co” as they are often fake versions of real news sources  

  • Watch out if known/reputable news sites are not also reporting on the story. Sometimes lack of coverage is the result of corporate media bias and other factors, but there should typically be more than one source reporting on a topic or event.

  • Odd domain names generally equal odd and rarely truthful news.

  • Lack of author attribution may, but not always, signify that the news story is suspect and requires verification.

  • Some news organizations are also letting bloggers post under the banner of particular news brands; however, many of these posts do not go through the same editing process (ex: BuzzFeed Community Posts, Kinja blogs, Forbes blogs).

  • Check the “About Us” tab on websites or look up the website on Snopes or Wikipedia for more information about the source.

  • Bad web design and use of ALL CAPS can also be a sign that the source you’re looking at should be verified and/or read in conjunction with other sources.

  • If the story makes you REALLY ANGRY it’s probably a good idea to keep reading about the topic via other sources to make sure the story you read wasn’t purposefully trying to make you angry (with potentially misleading or false information) in order to generate shares and ad revenue.

  • If the website you’re reading encourages you to DOX individuals, it’s unlikely to be a legitimate source of news.

  • It’s always best to read multiple sources of information to get a variety of viewpoints and media frames. Some sources not yet included in this list (although their practices at times may qualify them for addition), such as The Daily Kos, The Huffington Post, and Fox News, vacillate between providing important, legitimate, problematic, and/or hyperbolic news coverage, requiring readers and viewers to verify and contextualize information with other sources.

 

© 2016 by Melissa Zimdars - Merrimack College assistant professor of communication & media

Evaluate Sources with the CRAAP Test

Whether you’re writing a research paper, purchasing a product, or casting your vote, it is up to you to carefully evaluate information sources. One helpful evaluation tool is the CRAAP test, developed by Sarah Blakeslee at CSU Chico, and revised with her permission by NWACC Library. The letters in CRAAP stand for five evaluation criteria explored in the tabs above. See below for printer friendly version.

A word of caution: There is potential for error, distortion, and bias in any source. Respected experts disagree with their peers, new discoveries call once-established “facts” into question, and widely-accepted theories are later proven false. It can be both useful and necessary to engage with sources that do not pass the CRAAP test, especially if you critically evaluate the source and address its limitations. So keep an open mind, acknowledge uncertainty, practice skepticism, stay informed about new developments, and seek understanding of multiple perspectives related to the subjects and ideas that matter to you.

CURRENCY:  Consider the timeliness of the information you encounter, when it was published or produced.

  • If it’s an older source, is it outdated?  Or is it timeless? Find out whether the information has historical value.
  • Determine whether there have been important discoveries or developments related to the topic since the resource was created.
  • Check to see if and when the source itself was updated or revised. If you’re evaluating a website, test links to ensure they are still working.

RELEVANCE:  Think about how well the source fits your needs.

  • Does it answer your question? Does it provide information directly related to your topic?
  • Consider the uniqueness, depth and breadth of the information covered; does its treatment of the subject fit your needs?
  • If you’re writing a research paper, make sure you can use the resource to develop, emphasize, support or critique your ideas.
  • Pay attention to the source’s intended audience. In other words, make sure it is neither too advanced nor too simple to suit your purpose.

AUTHORITY:  Question the source of the information. In other words, who wrote, produced, funded or published it?

  • Determine whether the author is an individual, group, non-profit organization, commercial enterprise or government office.
  • Is there enough information about the author—such as her education, experience, or professional affiliations—to gauge her subject expertise?
  • Is the author/organization/publisher respected by other experts in the field?
  • Is the content dynamic? In other words, if someone else views the same source later, might the content be altered?
  • Consider issues of editorial control, including the review process involved before the resource is published or updates are posted.
  • For websites, think about whether the URL domain (such as .edu, .gov, .com, .org, etc.) indicates anything useful about the source.

ACCURACY: Assess how reliable the information is.

  • Is there sufficient evidence to back the author’s claims? Do the arguments or assertions stem from fact-based and logical analysis?
  • Can the information be verified by other reputable sources? Make sure the author cited his sources so you can evaluate their merit.
  • Was the source peer-reviewed or refereed; that is, have reputable experts in the field formally approved the content or research methods?
  • Look for examples of plagiarism, exaggeration, prejudice, or bias in the source. Does the author jump to conclusions too quickly?
  • Does the author acknowledge and fairly assess alternate perspectives and possibilities? Watch out for simplistic yes/no and either/or thinking.
  • Consider the quality of the writing itself; punctuation, spelling, and grammatical errors are red flags.

PURPOSE: Determine why the information is presented.

  • Was the source created to educate, inform, entertain, or persuade the audience?
  • Look for evidence of commercial, political, religious, or other motivations. (Hint: Check whether advertisements are clearly labeled.)
  • Consider how upfront the author is about her reasons for creating the source.
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This LibGuide was originally created by Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill and Lawrence MA. Adapted with permission.

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