Want to Combat Fake News? Become a Better Researcher

Finding information in our digital world has never been easier, but there’s a dark side. Fake news seems to lurk everywhere, wielding the power to misinform and mislead.

How do you get closer to the truth? I asked Pati Daisy, a retired teacher-librarian from my hometown of Lake City, Iowa, to share her expertise. Here’s to keepin’ it real.

I know it takes time to research properly. Why is it valuable to invest the time?

It forces a person to slow down, think for a bit, and ask is the statement in question is a fact, opinion, myth or some blend of the three. Also, question the hidden agenda behind the statement’s presenter(s). What is the stated or unstated bias? What is the goal behind the statement? Who is the intended audience? How is that audience being manipulated?

What are the top 2 or 3 things that drive you crazy when it comes to people failing to research properly?

The thing that disturbs me the most is not that people fail to research properly as much as they fail to research at all. I will lay that blame squarely on a failure of our education system.

Here’s where is gets personal. I am a librarian. I ended my career as a teacher-librarian, but early in my career, librarians were not really seen as teachers as much as selectors and dispensers of information. We were taught how to evaluate, select and maintain information sources that would support a school curriculum. Publishers had editors whose role was to verify or at least help to ensure what was published was authoritative and useful to the intended audience. After all, there is considerable investment in publishing a book.

For a long time, this system was good enough. One person in a school or school district who knew how to do that was good enough. As long as carefully selected information sources were made available to educators and students alike, people really didn’t have to do much authentic re-search. But this is no longer the case. I believe there is not nearly enough being done in our schools to help staff and students learn and be held accountable for those skills.

Students will go to Wikipedia and the first results from Google if they are allowed to do so. It’s just so easy. Teachers today should maybe not accept those things as legitimate resources without some restrictions.

That being said, the Wikipedia of today is vastly improved over its beginnings. I would advise students, staff and general public to start there. It’s a good place to get a general overview or an outline of a topic. I would not allow Wikipedia articles as a source for a student research paper, however, but people can often find out the questions they didn’t even know to ask. Furthermore, Wikipedia now often lists a great number of sources to support their articles. Students and even the general public may well want to start there.

As for the first few Google hits, there are probably whole college courses on how to manipulate search engines, how some sites pay to be higher on the results list, and how sites are constructed so that the search brings the site higher in the results list. Suffice it to say, there’s no inter-net help-desk librarian sitting there answering your question. Search engines like Google are computer programs that have been carefully created (by humans) to specifically bring certain websites up first.

Many people say they don’t know how to combat fake news, because they don’t know where to go for information they can trust. Any advice on how people can sort fact from fiction?

I don’t know that the average person can truly combat fake news. but they can learn more about news and media sites. There are a couple of media bias charts that will help people to recognize the potential bias of particular new/media organizations.

Two that I recommend All Sides Media Bias Chart and Ad Fonets Inter-active Media Bias Chart.

One of my favorite quotes is from Mark Twain, who said “It’s better to remain silent and thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” Did Twain really say this? Upon further research I find that this saying (or a similar wording) has been attributed to Twain, Abraham Lincoln, Samuel Johnson, and the Book of Proverbs, among others. An unskilled researcher runs the risk of falling down the proverbial rabbit hole when trying to verify something. It’s difficult, and far too many haven’t been taught how to do it.

My best advice is to always question the source.

There are several things to look for when trying to determine the veracity of a source. When I taught information skills I used the mnemonic RAD-CAB™ which teaches you to consider these six key points:

1. Relevance
2. Appropriateness
3. Detail
4. Currency
5. Authority
6. Bias

Another mnemonic is called The CRAAP Test (I know, don’t you just love that?) The researcher is asked to consider:

• Currency
• Relevance
• Authority
• Accuracy
• Purpose

As you evaluate sources, start with the basics.

1. Learn how to read the URL. For example, is it a:
– .com – a commercial site, trying to sell
– .edu – from an educational institution, trying to inform
– .org – an organization, trying to persuade
– .gov – government
– .mil – military
– Country designation: .uk – United Kingdom, .il – Israel, .ru – Russia, .no – Norway, and so on

2. Consider the source. My pet peeve is satire sites. Don’t get me wrong, I love satire, but satire is currently being used to inflame emotions. Those sites cater to the gullible, eliciting an immediate gut reaction of outrage. Too often, an outraged reader will then share the site or story, and others become inflamed. That immediate sense of outrage should be followed by these questions Really? Is this true? Who says?

You can try to answer those questions by:

– Going to the website home page and looking for the About Us page. This is something I nearly always do before I even think about re-posting something. I want to know who originally posted it and what their purpose is. The About Us section is usually located in very small letters at the very bottom of the webpage. It is often rather hard to find, by design, I might add. If it is not there, that should be your first red flag.

– Find out who is the author or group behind the page.

– Find out what their credentials are. What gives them authority in the particular subject they are presenting?

– Above all, try to determine the intention, purpose, bias and point of view of the site.

Since researching could be an never-ending process, if you let it, how you do draw the line?

The decision to stop researching depends greatly on your purpose. Are you simply looking for some quick fix, some validation of your strongly held opinion? Or are you verifying a statement or idea for its accuracy? Are you truly seeking to further and more deeply understand a statement, idea, concept, etc.? Are you seeking to learn if there is another viewpoint on that topic?

What’s your advice about analyzing bias when researching?

It has been often said that the pen is mightier than the sword. I believe that is true. Swords, guns, weapons of war do one thing and do it well. They kill, and whoever kills the most wins. The pen or words, if you will, can be subtly woven, bent, twisted and manipulated with the sole purpose of influencing the reader/listener/viewer. Words have power. Just as responsible gun owners learn and practice proper gun safety, so should we all learn and practice proper evaluation of any information we consume. We need to always be aware that there is the potential for bias in everything we hear, read or see.

Every human being has some type of bias, but just because we may believe something does not make it true. We need to question, always.

Keep in mind:
– Political viewpoint
– Purpose – such as to inform, persuade or sell
– Who is financially supporting the publication or website?
– How is the opposing view of the topic handled?

Does the author or site:
– Use extreme all-or-nothing type words?
– Use words that appeal to emotion?
– Use words that oversimplify or generalize?
– Present a limited view?
– Cite the sources used?

The New Jersey Institute of Technology has a very good explanation of things you should keep in mind as you check for bias. Click here for details. 

Anything else you’d like to add about how to research properly?

The admonition “let the buyer beware” has never been more crucial.

My final word is to remember that anyone can produce and post anything on the internet now. There is no “librarian in the sky” skillfully evaluating and selecting information for us. We have to do that important job ourselves.

It’s too easy not to, but it’s so important that we must. We must learn, we must question, and we must think.

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