Sorting fact from fiction
At a glance
- Kids need to be aware of hidden agendas and outdated information on websites.
- Teacher librarians will help your child develop their online research skills.
- The ability to question information is a vital tool for kids to use to assess the credibility of information.
- Credible sites will be open about their aims and who they are speaking to.
- If an article refers to expert quotes or research, they should link that quote to the original source.
You can't always trust what you read when researching information for homework, assignments or projects. Here are ways your child can tell a good website – or any document – from a bad one.
With so much information on the web and no-one responsible for fact checking, kids need to look out for:
- bias and hidden agendas
- factual errors
- outdated information
- information which is country-specific
- commercially motivated information.
Play the detective
Colleen Foley, a curriculum adviser who helps school librarians with the NSW Department of Education, says in NSW public schools the teacher librarian and class teachers will help your child develop their research skills online in the library and classroom.
She says the ability to question information is a vital tool for kids to use to assess everything the media presents them with each day.
"The reality is anyone can publish anything on the internet," Colleen says.
"You can publish something that looks great but is full of factual errors, for example. Just as any publication – whether it's a book or whatever – can reflect a bias, any website can too."
When you're watching TV with your child, Colleen suggests having conversations that encourage them to think critically about what they're seeing.
"You can ask things like, 'Do you think this person is exaggerating?', 'How real is that opinion?', 'Would we want to behave like that?'," she says.
You can publish something that is great but full of factual errors. NSW Department of Education and Communities.
"And the same sorts of questions are really good questions to ask in relation to the internet: 'Can we find out who wrote this information?', 'Does the website tell us anything about who they are?' and 'Do we know if they are an expert in this area of information?'."
Start with 'My Library'
'My Library' is a NSW public schools' tool your child can access from any computer via the NSW Department of Education portal. It links into their school library catalogue with all the resources available at their school's library including books, videos and websites. These have been carefully selected by teacher librarians, teachers and curriculum advisers across NSW.
My Library also has links to information about identifying credible online sources, and how to properly credit the expert opinions they quote in their assignments.
Is it clear who has written the information?
Find out about the author and run some internet searches on their name to get a better picture of whether they are a recognised expert and what their motivation is for creating the information. Anyone can buy a .com, .com.au, or .net web address, but organisations need to prove their educational credibility to be granted a .edu domain name.
Are the site's aims clear?
Credible sites will be open about their aims and who they are speaking to. Sites that seem to change purpose as you delve deeper could be intentionally misleading, or simply created by enthusiasts who don't have expert subject knowledge.
Does the site achieve its aims?
If not, keep searching.
Is the site relevant to me?
The international nature of the web means you could find great information that refers to other countries but may be incorrect for Australian use. To help filter out irrelevant sites, search the Australian version of Google and select 'pages from Australia'.
Can the information be checked?
If an article refers to expert quotes or research, they should link that quote to the original source, so you can click on it and read it yourself. Failing that, copy and paste the quote, the expert's name or the name of the study into your search engine and see if you can verify it.
When was the site produced?
In theory, the web should always be more up-to-date than books because it can be changed instantly and constantly. That's not always the case. Look for anything on the site that has a date – a blog, a news story, or reference to an event to determine how current this information is. Also, on Google you can type your search keywords and click on 'News' in the top left. That will track down current news stories about your topic.
Is the information biased in any way?
Does the information address conflicting evidence or opinions? Ask yourself if there is a political or commercial motive for presenting the information as they have? Who do they offer links to? Do they support their opinions with links to expert evidence?
Does the site tell you about the choices open to you?
There's a difference between a site that provides information and one that tries to give you advice. In most issues, there are choices and alternative opinions. A credible resource acknowledges these. (They can form a conclusion based on the evidence they cite, as long as it's clearly identified as their opinion and not fact.)