How to Lose Your Gut

The journalist’s guide to gutless online verification

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 ( 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.

Content Analysis

Author – Is someone identified as the author of the site or article? Google them, look for a personal website. If their byline links to an archive of previous work, read through it to see if they cover the topic regularly. If they’re an academic, Howard Rheingold has a tip to check their credibility: “use the scholarly productivity index that derives a score from the scholar’s publications, citations by other scholars, grants, honors, and awards. If you want to get even more serious, download a free copy of Publish or Perish software, which analyzes scientific citations from Google Scholar according to multiple criteria. Again, don’t trust just one source. Triangulate.”

Content – Is the article citing facts and are they accurate? Or do you read it and realize there isn’t fact, statistic, quote or citation mentioned. Does it rely on generalized personal narratives that lack specificity?

Copy – Rosenberg advocates checking to see if the content is original. “Grab a chunk of text (a sentence or so), put it in quotes, and plug it into Google to see whether there are multiple versions of the text you’re reading.”

Links – Does it link out to reputable sources? Is it littered with keyword ads, or have no links at all? Also, critically, see who is linking to the site or page in question. Here’s what Rosenberg wrote about this: “If your hunt for links in turns up a ton of references from dubious sites, your article may be part of a Google-gaming effort. If you see lots of inbound links from sites that seem reputable to you, that’s a better sign. “

Comments/Tweets/Likes – Are people interacting with the content? Be sure to check if all of the comments are spam, and also to see if tweets come from active users rather than bots. Finally is anyone Like-ing the content or the site in general? One easy way to look for social media chatter for a given link is to install the ConvoTrack bookmarklet. Run it while on the site in question and it will show if people have shared the link on Twitter, FriendFeed, Digg, Reddit, HackerNews and some of the major blogging platforms.

Bookmarking – Rheingold noted that a good way to check on a piece of content—or website in general—is to see if people are bookmarking it. “See if the source has been bookmarked on a social bookmarking service like Delicious or Diigo; although it shouldn’t be treated as a completely trustworthy measurement, the number of people who bookmark a source can furnish clues to its credibility.”

Social Media Content

A good starting point for thinking about how to verify a tweet is this post from Craig Kanalley. (Here’s my related column about how to correct tweets.) He covers all of the important and basic points.

As I detailed in a recent column about the crisis-mapping project Ushahidi, it’s important to evaluate the network of the person providing the information. If you’re trying to verify a tweet, see if reputable, trustworthy people are interacting with that user, or if they have retweeted the information. If this person they followed by people in the geographic area where they claim to be? Does the list of people they follow seem to mesh with their profile and tweets? For Facebook, have they tagged the appropriate people in their status update and have those people responded with likes or comments?

Finally, take it offline. Rather than blindly retweeting or Facebooking something, practice the discipline of verification and get in touch with the source. DM them on Twitter, send them a message on Facebook.

And no column about evaluating web content would be complete without pointing to and the Museum of Hoaxes as a place to check for hoaxes and rumors.

Correction of the Week

“In a feature looking at the subject of postnatal depression among fathers, we should have quoted Andy Maxwell as saying “a stay-at-home dad is still unusual – parenthood as a full-time role is still considered women’s work”. Instead, our shorthand version of the last part of his remark had him seeming to say “full-time parenting is women’s work” (‘There’s no support for fathers’, 9 September, page 10, G2).” – The Guardian

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Craig Silverman is the editor of and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of and a columnist for the Toronto Star.