This week, the New York Times published an article about Snopes.com, one of my longtime favorite websites. Snopes is in the business of checking internet rumors, urban legends, and gossip along with all those emails your aunt or second cousin forwards you every few months. I have been alarmed by the staggering amount of misinformation that bright, educated, well-meaning people are willing to pass along. There have been many times that I have checked the information from an email forward on Snopes (and yes, they provide references) and replied to everyone else that received the same message to inform them of its fallacies. Perhaps this is annoying, but I liken it to a public service. David and Barbara Mikkelson (the husband-wife duo behind Snopes) have been in the business of debunking misinformation for fourteen years and after a decade and a half "they seem to have concluded that people are rather cavalier about the facts."
Librarians and professors encourage students to evaluate information they find online for their research reports by investigating some basic criteria:
Authority: Who is the author? What are their credentials? Are they qualified? Who do they work for?
Accuracy: Are the facts reported accurate? How do you know? Are there references?
Objectivity: Is the source or author objective or biased? Is the publication objective or biased? Is the source affiliated with particular groups that might make its report more biased?
Currency: Is the information current? Is it in keeping with current theories and practices?
Coverage: Does the article cover all aspects of an issue?
These criteria are important for school research, but they are equally important in evaluating information you come across every day. When you receive an email forward that seems shocking, you might stop and evaluate it before passing it on.