Assessing the information
Not all information on the web is reliable. Whether you're answering a simple question or researching a larger project, here are a few ways to help you assess whether the information you find is trustworthy or biased.
Double-check your information
As with any research, it's always a good idea to double-check crucial information with another source – get a second or third opinion, or use sources that are already well researched.
Ways to do this include:
- look for a range of opinions that are supported by different sources – this helps you make up your own mind about the information being presented
- in secondary sources, a bibliography or reference list is often a good sign of a reputable resource, but you'll need to check whether the references listed are reliable and credible
- if you're looking for products or services, see if the website includes reviews from consumers, or find one that does.
With increased digitisation, we now have online access to material produced over decades – even centuries. As this material can reflect the society and time in which it was created, it's useful to think about the historical context – the events, people and ideas that surround it.
Keep in mind that:
- the less time between the event and the time of writing, the more likely certain details – such as dates, names and locations – will be accurate
- older documents show us what life was like in the past, and can also reveal attitudes that may be uncommon or unacceptable today
- particular formats – such as diaries, emails, video, sms, etc – reflect the era in which they were created
- even if the resource is only a few years old, it may not be the most up-to-date information, especially if it is part of an ongoing study or changing theories.
An example of bias in historical interpretation is the role of women in the Eureka Stockade, uncovered by Clare Wright in her award-winning book The forgotten rebels of Eureka. Primary resources clearly documented women's lives on the Victorian goldfields, and their presence during the Stockade, but this information had been left out of historians' accounts of the battle. Why? Because unconscious bias against the role of women in society at that time meant that historians simply didn't look for or see the evidence.
We all have biases. They can be conscious or unconscious, deliberately shared as propaganda or communicated without us realising.
News articles can subtly present people and events in a certain light. A column or essay in an online newspaper can use personal experience or opinion to make a point or explore an idea. Blog posts can be the web version of speaker's corner, the place to air personal views or simply rant.
Sometimes it can be useful to read a range of views on a subject, to see the different sides of a debate. At other times, however, such information can lead you astray.
Warning flags to help you spot biased sources of information might include:
- inflammatory, emotional or extreme language
- derogatory or nasty statements
- attacks on other people or groups
- extravagant claims
- sweeping generalisations or selective use of facts
- vague or contradictory information
- inappropriate ads or hard sell of products.
The key to smart searching is to search strategically and quickly check the information for both quality and bias, then filter the results to find what you need.
Things to remember
- Always double-check your information
- Accepted attitudes from the past may be unacceptable today
- Bias can be revealed by inflammatory language or selective use of facts
Now we'll look at how to use trusted sources of information as research pathways.