For an editor doing fact checking, research isn’t what it used to be. The days of needing a shelf full of almanacs, encyclopedias, manuals, and reference books in your office are gone, replaced by plugging in to the vast amount of information on the internet.
But just because there’s lots of information at your fingertips doesn’t mean it’s all good information. When you used to pick up the Statistical Abstract of the United States, you knew where the information was coming from and that it was trusted. When you type “what’s the current population of Kansas City” into Google, who knows what will pop up and from where.
Every day writers, editors, and fact checkers have to ask themselves: “Is this information that I’ve found reliable?” And that can be a particularly difficult question when the information is coming from nontraditional places like social media.
No matter what the online source, you can start by knowing how to assess a source’s credibility cues. What are the credibility cues?
You can read more about credibility cues in “Be Credible: Information Literacy for Journalism, Public Relations, Advertising and Marketing Students,” by Peter Bobkowski and Karna Younger, which is an online, open-source textbook.
When it comes to certain information on social media or user-generated content elsewhere online, answering these questions becomes more difficult. Often the user is the publisher. How do we determine that user’s credibility? What about photos posted to social networks: How do we determine the source?
This is when we have to look for tools developed to help people wade through the information on social networks.
You can use sites like Bot Sentinel, Botometer, and Botcheck.me to help determine whether a user is a real person or a bot. You can also use visual clues.
Tools are also available to help you determine whether a photo posted to social media has been faked.
For instance, data tools such as FotoForensics or Jeffrey’s Image Metadata Viewer help you judge whether a photo is original by showing the time the photo was taken, the posted size, and sometimes the location it was taken.
WolframAlpha.com will let you check out the weather at any location on any day so you can tell if there should have been snow, rain, or even shadows in the photo.
Use TinEye.com or Google Reverse Image search to see if the photo has been previously uploaded to the web, when, and how many times. TinEye can also show you if a photo is part of an established collection. And resources like Google Earth and Google Street View will help you check out details in the photo—such as whether a building on the block looks correct.
Finally, to double-check whether breaking news posted to a social network and photos from news events are real, always see if multiple accounts are reporting the event. Look for accounts you trust.
And when you see photos on social networks, pay attention to whether the post is a single post or a series. It’s more likely to be fake if it’s a single post because people witnessing big events tend to post more than once.
Gerri Berendzen teaches editing, digital media and information literacy at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications. She previously spent 34 years working at newspapers, most recently as supervisor of the digital/copy/design desk at the Quincy (Illinois) Herald-Whig. She started focusing on fact checking in 2014, when she became a visiting professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
Fact Checking Information Found Online was originally published in Tracking Changes (Fall 2019 edition). Members receive a PDF of the quarterly Tracking Changes newsletter by email.