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A journalist's guide to verifying info on the web

A journalist's guide to verifying info on the web

Jennifer Dorroh | November 17, 2011

When a frustrated computer programmer created a fake website and press release about a study showing Internet Explorer users are not as smart as people who used other browsers, major media organizations fell for the hoax.

CNN, BBC and other news outlets ran stories on their sites describing the study. When it was revealed as a hoax, they had to admit that they hadn't properly checked their facts. (Oddly, this CNN story contains no mention that the study was fake.)

How could this embarrassment--and an instance of misinforming the public--have been avoided? Instead of rushing to publish, the news organizations should have followed a few simple verification steps, say digital journalists and journalism trainers Mandy Jenkins and Craig Silverman. Jenkins, social news editor for the Huffington Post, and Silverman, editorial director of OpenFile.ca and editor and author of Regret the Error have these tips for verifying information found on the web:

  • Start with a Whois lookup on the domain to see who has registered the url.

  • Check the Internet archive to get a feel for the overall history of the site, organization, or person reporting the information.

  • Check the site's Google PageRank. If the page rank is high, that probably means credible sites have been linking to it.

  • Is there a clear and credible owner of the site? Check the site footer. Does it point to a real ownership entity?

  • Run blog and news searches to see if the person, topic or company has been talked about before.

  • Are people sharing it on social bookmarking sites like Digg?

  • Make some phone calls and try to get the source of the info on the phone before you publish anything.

  • Check names. Do they have a personal history? Is the name drawn from history or literature? Hoaxers often like to be clever by giving themselves historical names.

  • Do the numbers add up? In the case of the fake Internet Explorer story, the study supposedly questioned more than 100,000 users, a scale that would be very difficult to pull off.

When news organizations do decide to report something that isn't 100 percent confirmed, they should make it very clear that "this is what we know, this is what we don't know, this hasn't been confirmed," Silverman says. "It's important to be brave and transparent about what you don't have."

Jenkins and Silverman shared their advice during their presentation, "B.S. Detection for Journalists," at the fall 2011 Online News Association Conference in Boston. The slides from and video of their presentation can be viewed here.

@jendorroh

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