Friday, May 08, 2015

What's Your Source?

A student breathlessly proclaimed, "They are rounding people up and putting them in camps."

"And where did you hear that?"

"On the internet."

We can smile at this student and forgive him his gullibility, but an amazing number of people, many well educated and reasonable, are just as susceptible to gobbling up worthless information and spitting it out as if it were gospel.

Consider a news story from a few years back when Fox News reported that Los Angeles police was spending a billion dollars on jet packs. The source of the story? Weekly World News, a supermarket tabloid with such headlines as "Bat Boy: Going Mutant" and "Google Street View of Heaven."

I shudder imagining the havoc P.T. Barnum would have wreaked with access to the media and a gullible public less interested in accuracy of reporting than validating held beliefs, no matter how absurd. It's a tribal mentality, and data challenging the tribe is discounted out of hand.    

I'm not taking a political position here, not a right or left stance. Instead, I'm asking for people to stop and check a source before spreading bad information.

I know, you don't have the time for in-depth research. That's the media's job. But sometimes corporate media doesn't police itself. Ask the editors at Rolling Stone, recently embarrassed by shoddy journalism in covering an alleged rape.

You owe it to yourself to consider the source's credibility, especially when forming opinions that might affect your or your family. The University of Wisconsin has a great page for students engaging in online research, or for anyone looking online for information. Here are the things students are asked to consider:

1) Who authored the piece? Uncredited information is questionable. Credited information gives you the chance to research what that person has done before and to see what sort of background and/or bias they have. Also, what sort of writing is on display? Someone publishing writing with poor grammar and spelling immediately announces itself suspect.

2)When was the research done? Historical context can be critical.

3)What is the domain of the webage? The domain is identified at the end of the web address. A dot com, for instance signifies a company, and we all know companies are motivated by profit, and as such may not present information contrary to its self-interest. Other domains include dot net, dot org, and dot gov. Again, considering the information given these suffixes is a matter of context.

4) Is the reporting citing a source? Had Fox bothered to cite Weekly World News as a source in the above story, people would have been able to immediately head in that direction and discount the information as sensationalist fluff.

5) A site's design can be indicative of its credibility. Of course, some of the worst sites have beautiful and professional layout. Still, if something looks like it was slapped together, then it should immediately be regarded with skepticism. Furthermore, if a site has a ton of advertising promoting a particular point of view, then one knows that the site is biased.


Charles Gramlich said...

My favorite lately has been how Obama is invading Texas

Stewart Sternberg said...

I know. It would be laughable, except the governor has responded with troops.