6 Evaluating websites
When cross-checking, you also need to take into account the fact that not all websites are equally reliable or authoritative. For example, the information they present may be inaccurate or out of date. It may be a hoax, or written by someone trying to promote a biased point of view, or even with the deliberate intention of misleading.
You might think of setting up a committee of ‘gatekeepers’, a bit like the editorial board of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, who could decide what was wrong and what was right. But, apart from the practical difficulties of agreeing who would sit on such a committee, the scale of the internet makes it very challenging. Whereas the Britannica holds about 44 million words, in January 2018 thehad about 4.3 billion indexed pages, containing around a trillion words.
However, there are several respected fact-checking sites. In the next activity you will look at two of them.
Activity 9 Fact-checking websites
Fact-checking websites tend to focus on matters that affect politics or public policy, especially anything controversial.
Pick one or two issues that are currently being debated in the media, preferably one where the facts are disputed. Then see whether the following sites say anything about them. One has a UK focus and the other is more US-orientated.
At first sight, Snopes may seem to concentrate on rather trivial stories. To dig deeper, you can do a search on a keyword or a website address, and then filter the results by time period or author.
However, rather than rely on fact-checkers, you might like to develop your own ‘radar’ for evaluating websites. Several checklists exist for doing this, including PROMPT, which was developed at The Open University. The PROMPT checklist is shown in Table 1.
Table 1 PROMPT checklist for evaluating websites
|Presentation||Is the material well presented? Are grammar and spelling right? Are layout and style clear, readable, and consistent across the website’s pages?|
|Relevance||Is the website likely to answer your question? Does it have any kind of description or introduction to help you decide?|
|Objectivity||Do the author(s) make their position clear? Do they have a special interest, such as commercial, political, personal belief, and so on?|
|Method||Often a website presents journalism, the results of a survey, or scientific information, and so on. What methods were used? How were the facts gathered? How was the survey done? What is the research evidence?|
|Provenance||Is the author or source of the material clear? Is the website owned by a trustworthy body, such as a university, a public service broadcaster, a professional body, an international organisation, a government department, a respected company? Do other websites you trust link to this one?|
|Timeliness||Do the pages have a date to indicate when they were produced, or last updated? Is the information out of date, or is the date not critical for the question you are trying to answer?|
This next activity gets you using the PROMPT criteria to evaluate websites.
Activity 10 Using PROMPT
Choose a question that is probably hard to answer, such as ‘How many kinds of dinosaurs existed?’. Do some internet research to try to answer it. Don’t spend too long on this – a maximum of 15 minutes.
As you visit websites, try to do a quick mental check of the answers to each of the PROMPT criteria in Table 1 above. It is often worth scrolling to the bottom of a website’s home page, where there is often an ‘About us’ link, and other information relevant to the PROMPT criteria.