Consider the source

A new study from the Stanford History Education Group paints a distressing picture of the ability of middle school, high school, and college students to discern between credible and fake news stories or sponsored ads. Being a librarian for a dozen years, this is, sadly, not surprising. It’s not only students, but plenty of adults who aren’t always skilled at interpreting the credibility of information sources. Librarians strive to empower the public with basic information literacy skills every day. As story after story appears in the press about the proliferation of fake news, it’s critical that all of us realize that not everything we read is true.

The first book I read was the Bible. It was huge and had a holographic Jesus on the cover that entranced me. I was fascinated by the stories that supplemented my early Catholic school education. Living in the Bronx until I was ten, I also read the New York Daily News regularly because I wanted to know everything that was happening in the world around me, and that happened to be the paper that could always be found on the dining room table. Spellbound by both storytelling and facts, the idea of becoming a journalist was on my short list of dream jobs. Majoring in journalism in college, the phrase, “consider the source” was drilled into my head. This, combined with a somewhat urban upbringing, provided the wiring for a healthy foundation of skepticism. As a librarian, the inclination to not believe information without knowing the credibility of the source has served me and, by this point, hundreds of library customers in good stead. Clearly though, there’s a lot of work to be done.

Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communication and media at Merrimack College, recently found herself in the spotlight when she put together a document on how to detect fake news sites, “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and Satirical “News” Sources”.  For years, we’ve been telling students not to use Wikipedia as a primary source, but to use entries as a jumping off point and go to the references listed at the end of the articles to find authentic sources. When we help customers working on computers in the library, we tell them not to go to the sponsored ads. When we’re helping people find sources of authoritative medical information, we direct them to sites like Look at the facts. Look at the sources. Get to the root of the source of the story. Find the truth.

How do you determine if a story is fake or overly biased?

  • Check the URL: Have you ever heard of the source? Does it have an odd extension, like a “.co” at the end of it? An example of an expertly crafted fake news site is , instead of .
  • Have you seen the story reported on elsewhere? If you haven’t, that’s a red flag. News is news and will be reported on by multiple sources.
  • Are there sources reported within the story?
  • Is the story surrounded by pop-ups or over-the-top article links with graphic or disturbing pictures?
  • Are there several misspelled words?
  • Is there an obvious bias in the story?
  • What’s the motivation of the organization behind the article? Look for an “about us” link to find out more information. Then, google them.
  • Are there a lot of adjectives?

Now that the world has gone digital, it’s up to all of us to accept responsibility in navigating that world. A group of four students participating at a recent hackathon at Princeton University met that challenge and created a Chrome browser extension, FiB: Stop Living a Lie, that tags Facebook links as verified or not verified. When Oxford Dictionaries chooses the term “post-truth,” defined as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” as their word of the year, we know we are in trouble. Tuning out the noise and turning up the facts is not always the easiest or most comfortable path to take, but it’s a societal responsibility.

Photo courtesy of the author.

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