Fake news stories distributed online are a growing concern and have real-life ramifications. It is the responsibility of all consumers of news and information to learn to fact-check and rigorously evaluate the online sites used to gather that information, and develop some fundamental media literacy skills. Making an assumption that information is credible and reliable without doing at least a basic evaluation can have devastating results; on December 4, 2016 an incident occurred in a Washington D.C. pizzeria that was sparked by an online conspiracy theory, resulting in one armed man firing a weapon inside the restaurant. No injuries were reported, but the incident highlights just how dangerous sharing fake or discredited information can be.
Melissa Zimdars is an assistant professor of communication and media at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachussetts; she has publicly shared a document originally created for her students that contains tips and tools for evaluating sources including online news sites. The document is linked below:
When evaluating a website for credibility, one of the first things to look at is the URL. This can tell you several things about the website such as the creator, the audience, the purpose, and sometimes even the country of origin. Within the URL you can find the domain name, the truncated URL or root address that will often reveal who created the site or site sponsorship.
Another item to look for in the URL is the ~ (tilde) symbol. This is often a sign that the page is a personal web page and as such, is likely not a credible research source.
A domain name is like a website’s proper name. Businesses and organizations often have a domain name that is their corporate name with a domain suffix (such as Microsoft’s domain name, Microsoft.com). The domain suffix is the end of the domain name (the .com part).
Websites are grouped by their domain suffix according to the type of information they provide. The domain suffix can provide you with a hint about who has created the site or what their intent is. See the list of domain suffixes at right to learn about the most common domain suffixes.
Blogs are generally not considered credible research sources, as they are typically journal entries posted on a web page by an individual. As source material, the bias in blog posts usually renders them unusable.
.com = Commercial site. The information provided by commercial interests is generally going to shed a positive light on the product it promotes. While this information might not necessarily be false, it might be only part of the picture. Remember, there's a monetary incentive behind every commercial site to provide positive information, whether for good public relations or simply to sell a product.
.edu = Educational institution. Sites using this domain name are schools, from kindergarten through higher education. Information from sites within this domain must be examined carefully for point of origin. If the information is from an academic department or research center at an educational institution, it can generally be taken as credible. However, students' personal Web sites are not usually monitored by the school even though they are on the school's server and use the .edu domain.
.gov = Government. If you come across a site with this domain, then you're viewing a federal government site. All branches of the United States federal government use this domain. Information such as census statistics, congressional hearings, and Supreme Court rulings would be included in sites with this domain. This information is considered to be from a credible source.
.org = Traditionally a non-profit organization. Organizations such as the American Red Cross or PBS (Public Broadcasting System) use this domain suffix. Generally, the information in these types of sites is credible and unbiased, but there are examples of organizations that strongly advocate specific points of view over others, such as the National Right to Life Committee and Planned Parenthood. You want to give this domain scrutiny. Some commercial interests might be the ultimate sponsors of a site with this suffix.
.mil = Military. This domain suffix is used by the various branches of the Armed Forces of the United States.
.net = Network. You might find any kind of site under this domain suffix. It acts as a catch-all for sites that don't fit into any of the preceding domain suffixes. Information from these sites should be given careful scrutiny, and often is not considered to be credible.