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Fact-checking 101: Check the sources

December 15th, 2016 by Chris Strauber

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Fact-Checking

As a librarian and citizen and concerned human I have spent a lot of the last year consuming news in a variety of formats, online and off. In the aftermath of the election I have some thoughts on tools and approaches I take to making sense of it, and to making sure what I’m reading makes sense. This is part 1 in a multi-part series. First: what to fact-check.

There’s a lot of discussion of “fake news” since the election. It’s not fake news, it’s propaganda. Fact-checking propaganda is usually a waste of time, and making opponents waste their time and energy trying to disprove things often serves the propagandist’s purpose. Another tactic is to flood the airwaves with so much nonsense that it’s impossible to have a conversation about certain topics, like climate change. Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina, points out this is a form of censorship. There is also the pragmatic point that people receptive to conspiracy theories are not often receptive to fact-checking.

Don’t try to fact-check something like Pizzagate. Let the New York Times do that–they have a staff and a budget and will work more comprehensively than you likely can.

What I recommend instead is picking the topics you can quickly and easily check on. Most misinformation evaporates if you look at it closely at all. Jumbosearch is the big search box on our homepage. It contains the full contents of the library catalog plus the full text of about 150 million articles. It’s really good for solving a set of common fact-checking problems.

Example 1: new scientific discovery discussed in a news article. Question: is that actually what the study says? First Step: read the article.

  • How: use Jumbosearch to quickly identify if Tufts has an online copy or interlibrary loan it if we don’t. Usually an author’s name and a few distinctive words from the title are all you need. In this case the New York Times has linked to it, but in other cases you’ll need to search.
  • Note: Jumbosearch is also the easiest way to get past paywalls from off-campus. When you hit one, search for the article in Jumbosearch and you’ll be prompted to log in for full text if we have it.

Example 2: an author is discussing their new book with a spectacular claim. Question: is this reasonable? First step: check what reviewers say, especially scholarly ones. Next step: read the book yourself and draw your own conclusions.


Example 3: a friend on Twitter or Facebook or in your email inbox brings up something from a website you’ve never heard of. Question: Is this true? First step: see how other media are talking about the issue.

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Additional useful tools

  • Oxford Reference and Credo Reference are both scholarly Wikipedia equivalents; Credo looks a little bit better on a mobile device, but they otherwise solve the same problem. It’s like having a shelf  of reputable scholarly encyclopedias and dictionaries.
  • BLC Worldcat is a library catalog of library catalogs, essentially books (and videos) and other things in print for several thousand research libraries worldwide, including Tufts. If Tufts has it you’ll see how to get it; if we don’t, you’ll be able to have it delivered in a few days.

These are the tools I reach for first if I read something dubious or doubtful or overly excited. Do this much, and you’ll be better prepared than most.

Next in this series: some suggestions for a balanced media diet, and a few news sources available to the Tufts community.

Series NavigationFact-Checking 101: Read Widely

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