Anyone with a computer and Internet access can become an electronic publisher, disseminating information to a global audience. While this new medium explodes with information, it also poses a vexing problem: What is the quality of the information? Just because a document, article or post appears online doesn't mean it contains accurate or reliable information. In fact, online information generally demands closer scrutiny than print publications.
Newspapers, magazines and professional journals have a long tradition of journalistic standards to which they 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, sorting 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. One example from the early days of the web made international headlines. It involved Pierre Salinger, a former correspondent for ABC News. He claimed to have information that TWA Flight 800, which crashed after takeoff from New York's Kennedy airport in 1996, was shot down by a US 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 allegation. In fact, this “information” had been circulating on the Net for months before Salinger “discovered” it. He made the mistake of accepting gossip as truth, which proved to be professionally embarrassing.
While embarrassment is rarely fatal, more serious consequences can result from following medical or legal advice posted online. 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?
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 Katie Couric will carry more credence than one by a rookie newscaster or blogger.
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 and if the article was reviewed and edited.
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, such as The New York Times and BBC? To assure accuracy, reputable publishers fact-check articles. Professional journals usually require peer review of articles.
In addition to this, there are a number of satirical news websites. Most people know about The Onion. But lesser known sites are often mistaken for real news. For example, back in 2013, The Daily Currant ran a very funny article that many reporters mistook for actual news, Paul Krugman Declares Personal Bankruptcy. A simple click to the site's About page explains, “The Daily Currant is an English language online satirical newspaper…” Similar mistakes happen all the time, because people don't check out the publisher.
Many publications, particularly blogs, just exist electronically. 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? This leads to the next criterion.
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 to publish on the internet, opinions abound. Always consider the source of the information. For instance, articles you find on a corporate website most likely promote the interests of the company. Regard these as advertisements, not objective analyses. 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 will 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.
For further discussion of this issue, visit the World Wide Web Virtual Library, which contains an excellent set of resources for evaluating Internet information.