It’s easy to believe that a well-designed, professional-looking website contains accurate and credible information. However, design and content are two completely different things. A Hollywood movie set can look very stunning and real, when in fact, it’s simply a wooden facade. The same is true of digital information. We need to explore what lies beyond the superficial web design and flashy images to determine whether a source is credible. In other words, can we believe the information that we are seeing, hearing, and reading? Can we trust it?
While misinformation has always been a concern, the Internet has made it much easier to produce and distribute untruths. Therefore, our students need additional skills that empower them to separate fact from fiction in an online world. There are many models and checklists available, but in this article, we’ll use the ABCs of evaluating sources. You can use these three steps with your students in helping guide them through the tangle of digital information and disinformation in order to check the credibility of the information they find. Using this process, your students can become information detectives in your classroom.
We need to be thoughtful about how we use any of these models. Research has shown that if we reduce this process to a simple checklist, students get lost in the minutia. In a sense, they lose sight of the forest for the trees. Ultimately, the forest is what is important—can we trust the information we have found? Therefore, students need to remain focused on the big-picture questions and not get lost in simply completing checklists. Yes, students need specific strategies for determining the credibility of information (and we need to provide these), but we also need to make sure that it doesn’t devolve into an automated, thoughtless procedure. This is where the process of assessing credibility becomes a bit of an art form. We need to know what the strategies are (which can feel like a checklist), but we must use them holistically to determine the overall credibility of the website or source of information.
Part of this artful dance includes exploring the ABCs as a whole and not as completely separate criteria. We need to consider how each element impacts the others. Content, for instance, cannot be explored without considering bias, since the credibility of an author colors how we look at the content. Similarly, if the purpose of a source is to persuade, we must ask if the content presented is complete. If it is incomplete, it’s also likely biased. It all weaves together.
In the ABCs of Checking Credibility, we focus on three elements: Author, Bias, and Content. Each of these topics plays an important role in determining whether or not a source is trustworthy. Again, it’s very important to have students take a step back from these three separate criteria and also look at the big picture. The ABCs should not be thought of as a checklist where you can create a simple numeric scorecard that tells you whether a site is trustworthy. It’s more nuanced than that. While you could have a site that rates very strongly in all areas but one, one area might be important enough to disqualify it as a trustworthy source. We must remind our students of the key question that they are trying to answer: “Is this source credible, and can I trust this information I find here?”
The ABCs of Checking Credibility
Who is providing this information, and can you trust them?
This is arguably the most important question that you can ask about any resource you are reviewing. You should determine if your source is an author or publisher. What are their credentials, and do they have a good reputation as a trusted source? Sometimes, it is quite easy to verify the author of a source, and other times, it requires some deeper digging. You will typically want to do some additional research about the author or publisher to determine their credibility. It can be very helpful to find out what others say about the author.
On the other hand, if your source is anonymous, you have no good way of knowing if the content is trustworthy. With so much information available, we should encourage our students to only settle for the very best. Anonymous sources should generally be avoided.
Consider the strategies below when trying to determine the source of information.
Determine the source (author or publisher)
- Truncate the URL: If you delete everything after the .com, .org, etc., can you identify the primary author?
- Locate the “About” page: What does this page say about the author?
- Find the copyright: Is there a copyright statement at the bottom of the page that can help you identify the author?
- Identify the author: Is there a different author associated with articles or material within the scope of the larger website?
Validate source credibility (author or publisher)
- Research the author or publisher: What do you learn about the author or publisher when you do a web search?
- Check reputation and affiliations: Is the author or publisher trusted by others, and do they have any questionable affiliations?
- Locate works cited: Does the site provide sources for the information they use?
- Read author bio: Does the site provide credentials that affirm the expertise of the author or publisher?
Why is the information being shared?
The first step toward identifying bias is to understand the purpose of the publication. Is it intended to inform, persuade, and/or entertain? Once you know the purpose, you can dig deeper to determine if the information provided is balanced, fair, and accurate, or if it is misleading. Sometimes, a source communicates a message that is intentionally biased, but other times, the authors may not even recognize their own bias. The strategies below can provide some ways to check for a source’s bias.
- Identify the purpose of the information: Is the intent to inform, persuade, and/or entertain?
- Evaluate the evidence: Are facts or opinions used for evidence to support claims?
- Consider balance: Does the information support one perspective or all perspectives?
- Watch for loaded words: Does the author use words that elicit an unnecessary emotional response?
- Watch for misleading visuals: Does the source use pictures, charts, and other visuals in a way that misrepresent their original intent?
What content is trustworthy
Ultimately, identifying the author and bias will help you determine if you can trust the content. This determination is not made by a simple formula or single strategy. Since there may be hundreds of sources that share the same misinformation, it is no longer enough to simply find the same information on three different sources to confirm its credibility. Rather, we need to make an informed determination by examining all aspects of the source and material. While we still need to read laterally to compare information with other sources, we need to go even further.
Once you have researched the source to determine the credibility of the author and the degree of bias, you will still want to take a closer look at the information itself. It’s possible for a well-intended author to share bad information. The strategies listed below can help you determine the validity of the content.
- Compare to other sources: Do other sources confirm the information you have found on this source?
- Look for citations: Are quality sources posted for the content posted on this site?
- Check date of source: Is the information current and relevant?
- Verify the evidence: Can you trust the facts and evidence provided?
- Consider the logic: Does the author use faulty reasoning to make a point?
- Evaluate the scope: Do the facts represent the full story and multiple perspectives?
- Confirm facts: Can you validate the information on fact-checking sites, such as Snopes, PolitiFact, or FactCheck?
Resources to Get Started
There are many resources available online to help you teach these concepts. The four sources below are great places to start, as they are highly regarded and widely used. Not only will you find information about information literacy in these sources, but you will also find instructional materials and lessons.
News Literacy Project (NLP) provides this free curriculum designed by educators and hosted by journalists and 1st Amendment experts. Teachers can assign interactive lesson modules or customize their own lessons using resources like videos, activities, and fact-check missions. Lesson topics include Understanding Bias, Misinformation, Democracy’s Watchdog, InfoZones, 1st Amendment, Arguments and Evidence, Branded Content, Personalization, and more.
This free newsletter from NLP provides teachers with “timely examples of misinformation, addresses media and press freedom topics and discusses social media trends and issues.” Discussion prompts and activities are also included.
The Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) provides a free curriculum to teach students how to effectively evaluate and use online information. Their lessons teach students how to use the lateral reading strategy to answer these three research-based questions: Who is behind the information? What’s the evidence? What do other sources say?
Common Sense provides a Digital Citizenship K–12 curriculum that includes lessons on news and media literacy. They also recently published News Literacy Resources for Classrooms that includes an extensive list of links to online curriculum providers, websites, videos, articles, and activities that teachers can use to teach news literacy. Topics include fact-checking and critical thinking skills; journalism and journalistic ethics; media manipulation, misinformation, and disinformation; finding and using credible sources; and more.