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Primary Sources: Website Evaluation

A guide to finding and using Primary source materials

Why Evaluate?

Image for Evaluate the News LibGuide


The internet can be a very quick and rewarding fountain of information but it can also be a quagmire of personal opinions and misinformation, so any information you gather from the internet should be evaluated carefully.  Unlike materials in a library that go through an extensive review and editorial process before they are published, the Internet has removed most if not all restrictions and editorial processes typical for print materials.  In effect, anyone can and does publish on the web, regardless of their qualifications or expertise. 


Click on the image above to open the "Evaluate the News" LibGuide.  

Finding Balanced News Coverage

There are several good sites for finding balanced coverage of current issues and fact-checking statements made in the media.  While bias can never truly be eliminated, understanding that it exists and learning strategies for working with it is critical to being a good researcher and consumer of information.  

Domain Suffixes Explained

.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.

What is Information, Propaganda, Misinformation, and Disinformation

This is probably what you're looking for when you use the Internet for academic purposes. Information, at its most basic, is data set in a context for relevance. In other words, information tells us something that is understandable and has the potential to become knowledge for us when we view it critically and add it to what we already know.

"Knowledge communicated concerning some particular fact, subject, or event; that of which one is apprised or told; intelligence, news. spec. contrasted with data." (from Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., 1989)

For example, "8,000,000" and "9%" are not information; they are bits of data. However, "The population of New York City in 2000 was reported to top 8,000,000 persons, a growth of 9% since 1990" is indeed information. Adding that information to other information and data on the funding of and expansion in public healthcare services in New York City would help city officials to develop knowledge of the stresses related to delivering healthcare services.

You probably found one of these documents more difficult to understand than the other. Both are information. To what extent is the "understandable" or "contextual" nature of information dependent upon our prior knowledge or familiarity with a given topic? Is the value of information intrinsic, or dependent upon the user?

Information should always be accurate and either free of bias or making note of its own bias. Information also needs to be useful for a given purpose to have value.

Propaganda is a commonly misused term. Because of its historical use, such as in the name of the infamous "National Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda" run by Joseph Goebbels for the Nazi government of Germany, many people associate propaganda with inflammatory speech or writing that has no basis is fact. In reality, propaganda may easily be based in fact, but facts represented in such a way as to provoke a desired response.

"The systematic propagation of information or ideas by an interested party, esp. in a tendentious way in order to encourage or instil a particular attitude or response. Also, the ideas, doctrines, etc., disseminated thus; the vehicle of such propagation." (from Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., 1989)

Political campaign speeches and party political statements are often, in reality, a form of propaganda. They fit this definition when they present the opposing point of view in an unfavorable light. All political organizations do this on a variety of issues.

  • "President Bush has named a one-sided, misguided commission that has only one objective: to privatize Social Security. In so doing, he is ultimately risking the future of the program on which millions of Americans rely for retirement security, widow benefits, and disability payments. In fact, the only security about which this commission seems concerned is the security of the financial industries and special interests who stand to make millions if Social Security is privatized." -- from a press release dated May 3, 2001 from the Democratic National Committee 

  •  ""The American people would be better served if the misguided leadership of the Democratic Party were to lower the destructive rhetoric that drives people apart and engage more constructively in the process," said Ann Wagner, Co-Chair of the Republican National Committee." -- from a press release dated April 26, 2001 from the Republican National Committee

Identify the terms used to color the information reported in each press release above. Read the releases again, deleting those terms. How do the statements sound different?

When you read documents or listen to audio or video files that characterize opinions or positions in terms of their integrity or moral content, you may well be in the presence of propaganda. Remember, the purpose of propaganda is to 'instill a particular attitude' to encourage you to think a particular way. Think for yourself: base your opinion on the facts, not the hype.

"Nobody's perfect" is an excellent rule of thumb in most cases but a bad omen when you're looking for information on the no-editorial-control Internet.

1.The action of misinforming or condition of being misinformed.                                                                                                                   
2. Erroneous or incorrect information." (from Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., 1989)




Misinformation differs from propaganda in that it always refers to something which is not true. It differs from disinformation in that it is "intention neutral": it isn't deliberate, it's just wrong or mistaken.

"It's going to require numerous IRA agents." -- George W. Bush commenting on Al Gore's tax plan, which he felt would lead to a larger Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and probably not a larger Irish Republican Army (IRA), in a campaign speech given at Greensboro, N.C., Oct. 10, 2000 (Read the Salon archive of "Bushisms" 

One of the most popular forms of misinformation on the Internet, especially e-mail, is the passing along of urban legends. Urban legends are fabricated or untrue stories that are passed along by sincere people who believe them...and feel the need to "inform" others.

"If you're driving after dark and see an oncoming car with its headlights turned off, DO NOT flash your lights at them. This apparently is a new common gang member initiation "game" that goes like this: the new member being initiated drives along with no headlights on and the first car to flash their headlights at him is now his "target." He is now required to chase that car and shoot at or into the car in order to complete his initiation requirement." -- a recurring urban legend that has appeared in print, fax campaign, and through e-mail


Misinformation is perhaps the most difficult information lookalike to diagnose. Why? What strategies could you develop to determine whether what you are reading constitutes information or misinformation?

Urban legends, unlike Mr. Bush's acronym problem, sometimes begin in malice. They become misinformation when they are repeated by sincerely misguided people. Everybody makes mistakes...check the validity of everything you read before you put your belief in it and use it.

You have now reached the lowest of the low. Never underestimate the evil intentions of some individuals or institutions to say or write whatever suits a particular purpose, even when it requires deliberate fabrication.

"The dissemination of deliberately false information, esp. when supplied by a government or its agent to a foreign power or to the media, with the intention of influencing the policies or opinions of those who receive it; false information so supplied." (from Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., 1989)


 One of the most notorious uses of disinformation was the dissemination of anti-Semitic speeches and writing by the Nazi party in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. Unfortunately, disinformation didn't end with World War II. In fact, the Internet is an excellent vehicle for disinformation.

  • Read Statement by His Excellency U Mya Than, Permanent Representative and Leader of the Myanmar Observer Delegation to the 57th session of the Commission on Human Rights at the United Nations website
  • Read 2000 Human Rights Watch report on Burma [Myanmar] at the Human Rights Watch Website. Human Rights Watch is an independent, nongovernmental organization that issues country reports on the human rights situations in countries around the world on a regular basis.

These two reports represent very different viewpoints on human rights in Tunisia. One of them may well represent disinformation. One good starting point in determining whether or not a document may constitute disinformation is to find out who owns the document or domain and then find out what that individual or group's mission or beliefs are. Ask yourself what the document owner has to gain by circulating the document.

Always validate or confirm information on individuals, institutions or groups, and countries that you find on the Internet. If you don't know who wrote what you read or why they wrote it, you don't know if it's trustworthy.