Dean Miller has spent years getting journalists to lose their gut.
“Your gut is the most dangerous thing you have,” says Miller, the director of the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism, and a longtime reporter and editor. “Your gut is purely prejudice and bullshit and some legend [you’ve built up about it] that is not really there.”
He says countless journalists have been led astray by their gut, causing them to fall for hoaxes, pass on inaccurate information, or otherwise allow the wool to be pulled over their eyes. Just think of The Washington Post editorial writer who quoted a fake congressman in the paper, or the reams of new organizations who presented information from an egg industry website without any mention of the self-interested nature of the source.
Miller was quoted in Poynter’s story about the egg issue, and he shared a three-step process that is used to teach students in the news literacy class at Stony Brook how to evaluate the quality of online content. Here’s his advice:
Dean Miller, director of the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University, says news consumers should pay attention to what he calls “the APCs” to determine the validity of an online source of news. That stands for Authority, Point of View and Currency (e.g., whether the site has recent information and the links are still live).
Miller noted that the Egg Safety Center site includes the logo for United Egg Producers. “On the one hand, that gives that source of information a fair amount of authority,” Miller told me. “Certainly they should know about eggs. But they have a point of view. You’ve got to take this information with a grain of salt. Maybe there’s an independent source of information on this.”
As journalists, we should be expert sifters, able to wade through an onslaught of information from various sources in order to pinpoint what matters, and what’s true. But we often follow our gut right into trouble, or think the media literacy advice outlined above isn’t meant for those of us in the media. In fact, it’s useful guidance for journalists, and fits nicely with a blog post from journalist Scott Rosenberg this week that offered advice on “How to check out any Web page.” Below is a selection of his advice, along with other tips and strategies cobbled together from other sources. Consider it your Guide to Gutless Online Verification. What? Not a good title? Well, you get the idea.
Checking A Site
Here’s part of what Rosenberg recommended as a course of action to check the quality of a website:
- Look the domain name up with whois. Is the registration info available or hidden? Again, lots of domain owners hide their info for privacy reasons. But sometimes the absence of a public contact at the domain level is a sign that people would rather you not look into what they’re doing.
- How old or new is the registration? If the site just suddenly appeared out of nowhere that can be another indication of mischief afoot.
- Look up the site in the Internet Archive. Did it used to be something else? How has it changed over the years? Did it once reveal information that it now hides? …
- Does the site tell you who runs it — in an about page, or a footer, or anywhere else? Is someone taking responsibility for what’s being published? If so, obviously you can begin this whole investigation again with that person or company’s name, if you need to dig deeper.
- Is there a feedback option? Email address, contact form, public comments — any kind of feedback loop suggests there’s someone responsible at home.
- What shape are the comments in? If they’re full of spam it may mean that nobody’s home. If people are posting critical comments and no one ever replies, that could also mean that the site owner has gone AWOL. (He might also be shy or uninterested in tangling with people.)
I’ll add these points:
- Check the footer information. Does the copyright notice list an organization or entity that seems unrelated to the content and general thrust of the site? If so, check it out.
- Who’s talking about this site? Search Google, Google Blogs, and Google News for the domain (fooledya.com) and the name of the site (Fooled Ya) to see what comes up. Is it mentioned by reputable sources in an encouraging way? Or are they telling you to stay away?
- Take it offline. You already checked to see if the site offered contact information, and now it’s time to use it. Call the phone number, send an e-mail.