Distinguishing Fact from Fiction
A few months ago, one of our teen customers came up to our reference desk to say hello and to tell me about a piece of concerning news she read on the internet. The teen told me she read that ICE had thrown a pregnant woman over the wall to prevent her from having a baby on U.S. soil. At first, I felt a wave of shock upon hearing this disturbing information, which was quickly followed by skepticism. I asked the teen where she had obtained this upsetting news and she informed me that she read it on Facebook. This triggered my inner librarian and I immediately turned to the computer to find the article and check its accuracy. With one keyword search on Google, I discovered the photo with the troubling headline was published on “The Onion,” a satirical newspaper. I attempted to explain to the teen that the article was satire, not real news, and we debated about how fake and photoshopped the featured photo was in reality.
This exchange is a prime example of the current issues surrounding our ability, and often inability, to distinguish between real, false or misleading information. While we would like to believe that this is only a problem amongst our teens, we know that even adults can struggle to make this distinction as misleading information has become more sophisticated and purposefully harder to identify. Finding reliable and relevant information from credible sources is a basic building block for being an informed citizen. Yet, the ability to distinguish between credible and misleading information requires an acute attention to detail. To be sure, the devil is in the details.
Consider the following web addresses:
Whitehouse.gov is the official government website for information about the White House and the current administration. Whitehouse.com is a website with a controversial history of featuring adult content (“SITES WE hate,” 2002). It currently features short political news stories and surveys. Finally, whitehouse.org is a parody website. While these websites appear to be very similar, the content they feature is very different. It is easy to see that the slightest variation, which to many people may appear to be an unimportant difference, has a significant impact on the actual content. In many cases, details are key to understanding “where” you are on the internet and, in turn, in distinguishing the credibility of a particular web address. Most web addresses ending in “.com” are related to commercial businesses, web addresses ending in “.gov” are government websites, and those ending in “.org” are generally related to non-profit organizations. Simply knowing these small details about a web address can help lead you to credible and reliable information.
This is true too, when it comes to understanding information. It is important to recognize the origins of the information that is being conveyed. For example, let’s review the misinformation provided by the teen. She believed the article was real because she failed to identify is origins. If she had, she would have realized that the article was meant to be humorous because it was derived from a satirical newspaper. Acknowledging the distinction is very important.
The best advice we can provide is to be skeptical of information obtained online and do additional research. Through our library website customers have access to numerous educational and scholarly resources, many of which, can be accessed from your home computer with internet access, a library card, and pin number. Also, included below are links to various fact-checking websites and additional reading recommendations concerning current information issues. Another option is to ask your local librarian and let them do the work for you. Finally, we encourage you to join us for a special event:
September 4, 2018 | 6:30 – 8:00 p.m. | Kent Branch Library
Hear local media specialists discuss the work that goes behind publishing the news and learn about resources you can use to evaluate sources and find reliable information.
This program seeks to help attendees distinguish between credible and unreliable news sources. During the program, attendees will hear from local media specialists who will discuss the work that goes on behind publishing the news. We will also discuss how you can use library resources to evaluate sources and find reliable information.
Blog Post Citations
University of Michigan to Help Citizens Spot Fake News – Michigan Radio (written by Tracy Samilton, published on April 18, 2017)
ICE Agents Hurl Pregnant Immigrant Over Mexican Border to Prevent Birth on U.S. Soil – The Onion (published January 18, 2018)
Did ICE Hurl a Pregnant Woman Over a Border Wall? – Snopes.com (written by Kim LaCapria, published on June 26, 2018)
SITES WE hate – Yahoo! Internet Life (published May 2002, vol. 8, issue 5, page 66)
Fact Checking: Internet Resources
- Whois.com: Use this website to identify who owns a particular website
- Allsides.com: Compare how news outlets cover the same topic
- Opensecrets.org: Track campaign contributions on this nonpartisan website
- Factcheck.org: Fact check popular stories in the news and on social media
- Politifact.com: Ranks the truthfulness of claims and statements made by politicians and provides explanations for their ranking
- Snopes.com: Fact checking news stories
- Blue Feed, Red Feed: See how different your Facebook Newsfeed can look based on your political leanings
- Media Bias Fact Check: Explore this site to find out about the bias of the information sources you access.
Additional Reading Recommendations
- New UM Class Takes on “Fake News” by Teaching Active Reading and Fact Checking – Michigan Radio
- Universal Intellectual Standards – The Foundation for Critical Thinking
- Critical Thinking Skills – University of Michigan
- We Tracked Down a Fake-News Creator in The Suburbs. Here’s What We Learned – All Things Considered (NPR)
Related Library Books
“Overload: Finding the Truth in Today’s Deluge of News” by Bob Schieffer with H. Andrew Schwartz
The legendary television journalist Bob Schieffer examines today’s journalism and those who practice it. Based on interviews with over 40 media leaders from television, print media, and the internet, Schieffer surveys the perils and promises of journalism’s rapidly changing landscape.
Also available in eAudio.
“Finding Reliable Information Online: Adventures of an Information Sleuth” by Leslie F. Stebbins
Our information-saturated environment causes us to spend too much time searching, surfing and organizing the information in our lives. But finding reliable high quality information can be a problem. We are often so buried in information– and strapped for time– that we grab the search results without bothering to evaluate its quality. Stebbins shows you how to cut out unreliable information and find online information you can rely on
“Research Strategies: Finding Your Way Through the Information Fog” by William Badke
Online resources have given us access to more knowledge than ever before. Were buried in data, and defining what is and what is not genuine information becomes more of a challenge all the time. In this fifth edition of “Research Strategies,” author William Badke helps you make sense of all of the available information, shows you how to navigate and discern it, and details how to use it to your advantage to become a better researcher.
“Smart Online Searching: Doing Digital Research” by Mary Lindeen
The information you find online can sometimes feel overwhelming. Which online sources can you trust? How do you know which sites include the facts you’re looking for? Learn the basics of how to do an effective online search, what to do if you have trouble finding information, and how to tell whether a source is reliable.
Also available in eAudio.
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