These days, anyone with a computer and modem can set himself or herself up as an electronic publisher on the Internet with the ability to disseminate information to a global audience. While this new publishing medium explodes with information, it has also created a problem. How do you evaluate the quality of that information? Just because a document appears online does not mean it contains valid information. In fact, Internet resources require close scrutiny.
The publishing world has a long tradition of journalistic standards to which print materials are held. Although many writers and publishers adhere to these standards when publishing on the Web, many don't. It's up to you to cast a critical eye to sort fact from fiction, actuality from opinion. Whether you are reading a printed article or an electronic one, a healthy dose of skepticism is in order.
Why is this important? The Internet abounds with all sorts of information, but unless you can be reasonably sure of its source and accuracy, be wary. A recent example which made international headlines involved former correspondent for ABC News, Pierre Salinger. He claimed to have information that TWA Flight 800 was shot down by a U.S. Navy missile. In fact he obtained his information from a posting on an Internet newsgroup. Although the document contained great technical detail, there was no hard evidence to back up the allegations. In fact, this "information" had been circulating on the Net for months before Salinger "discovered" it. He had made the mistake of accepting gossip as truth, which has proved to be professionally embarrassing.
While embarrassment is rarely fatal, more serious consequences can result from following medical or legal advice posted in newsgroups or on web sites. While someone may be well-meaning in offering the information, can you trust it? Is this person a doctor, a lawyer or just an opinionated individual? Is the website affiliated with a reputable professional organization, such as the Mayo Clinic or American Bar Association or some fringe group?
You Be the Judge
To help you evaluate information critically, we offer some guidelines:
Who is the author?
The first test involves authorship. Have you heard of the writer before? What is the reputation of the writer? Is he or she an acknowledged expert in this particular subject area? An article about the broadcasting industry written by Walter Cronkite will carry more credence than one by a rookie newscaster. Most professional publications, including newspapers, magazines and trade journals credit the writer. Is there biographical information about this person? Is there a way to contact the writer (a phone number, mailing address or e-mail address) should you want additional information? Information presented anonymously should arouse suspicion.
On a more technical level, how well written is the article? Is it grammatically correct? Are there spelling errors? This may sound trivial, but it does give some indication whether the writer is a professional or an amateur.
Who is the publisher?
Since some articles on the Web may not attribute the writer, the next criterion to evaluate is the publisher of the website. Is this an organization you've heard of before? Does it have a presence in the real world as well as online, such as The New York Times and CNN? To assure accuracy, most reputable publishers fact-check articles. Professional journals often require peer review of articles.
Many publications, however, just exist electronically. (Learn the Net is a good example.) If this is the case, what can you find out about the publisher? What qualifies it to write about the subject? Does it have expertise in this area? Which leads to the next criteria.
What is the point of view?
Rarely is information completely neutral; usually there's a point of view, maybe even a hidden agenda. Because it's so easy and inexpensive to publish on the Internet, opinion abounds. Always consider the source of the information. For instance, articles you find on a corporate website most likely will promote the interests of the company and its products. You should regard these as advertisements, not objective analysis. Likewise, information on a political website promotes the interests of the party and its candidates. Don't expect opponents to be treated fairly.
Are there references to other sources?
Does the author cite other sources of information in the article? Are these sources reputable ones? Can you go to these sources to verify the information? Answers to these questions can help you decide on the reliability of the document in question.
How current is the information?
Finally, online documents should include the date when they were written or when they were last updated. It's important to know the timeliness of the information, because newer, more relevant information may exist elsewhere.
"Although the Web offers tremendous resources for research, how do you know which sources are reliable? While the chief method of validating information on the web is by looking for other sources to support your web sources (and vice versa), the sites listed [on this site] also offer some advice on critically evaluating your web sites."
Evaluating the Validity of Web Pages