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College Writing: Using Sources

Learn more about sources

When we practiced evaluating a source, we learned that you'll often need to go beyond a website's "About Us" page to learn more about it. In a 2017 study from Stanford University, researchers found that both college students and history professors had trouble identifying misinformation online, but fact-checkers were able to easily handle the task. This is because fact-checkers use some quick, effective strategies to evaluate unfamiliar websites.

  • Fact-checkers don't read more of an unfamiliar website, they leave it.
    • If you don't know anything about a website or source, you can orient yourself by doing a quick Google search for the organization or publication. Rather than reading deeper into the source before you know whether it's trustworthy, first leave the page to get your bearings. Look to see if others have written about it, and specifically look for any information about the organization's history, mission, political leanings, and funding sources. 
  • Fact-checkers don't automatically trust the "About" page. 
    • Organizations can provide misleading information in their About page. They might be hiding a political bias, corporate funding, or a controversial past. Sometimes, checking the Wikipedia page about an organization or publication can give you a clearer sense of its true mission and purpose than the About page. 

This technique is called "lateral reading," and it's a great way to put your sources in context. Watch the Lateral Reading Video below to see this strategy in action.


Sources:

Supiano, Becky. "Students Fall for Misinformation Online. Is Teaching Them to Read Like Fact Checkers the Solution?" The Chronicle of Higher Education, 25 Apr. 2019.

Wineburg, Sam, and Sarah McGrew. "Lateral Reading: Reading Less and Learning More When Evaluating Digital Information." Stanford History Education Group Working Paper No. 2017-A1, 6 Oct. 2017.

Wineburg, Sam, and Sarah McGrew. "Why Students Can't Google Their Way to the Truth." Education Week, 1 Nov. 2016.

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Reading laterally

Lateral reading review

Have you checked your source?

Keep this list in mind when you encounter new and unfamiliar sources. But remember, a checklist doesn't determine whether a source is "good" or "bad" – you do! The list just provides you with some useful questions to ask yourself when you critically evaluate a source.

 

1. Do I know the name of the organization or creator behind this source? 2. Have I found more information about the organization or publisher by looking for outside sources about it? 3. Can I figure out the mission and purpose of this source? Have I verified this using outside sources? 4. Do I have any information about the source's funding? Could funding have an impact on this source's objectivity? 5. After learning more about this source, would I consider it trustworthy and credible? Why or why not?