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Debunking Fake News! And Our Reflections on Trustworthy Sources

This post applies Mike Caulfield’s strategies of web literacy to examine the reliability of web content, and is followed by reflections on web sources.

We have scrolled through the Four Moves blog and found an article about a woman named Anna Mae Dickinson. The article posed two questions to the readers: Did this woman actually exist?, and Did she survive all these disasters?. According to the article, a woman, named Anna Mae Dickinson, was the luckiest woman alive. Why, you ask? Well, apparently, she had survived the sinking of both the Titanic and Lusitania, the bombarding of Pearl Harbour and, at age 97, survived the 9/11 terror attack. Was she ever real or was she just a figment of someone’s imagination?

The answer is somewhat anticlimactic.

At first glance, the article about the luckiest woman on Earth was captivating to the eyes of its audience but it sounded a bit too theatrical when you take into account all the famous historic events mentioned. Our first instinct was to check the reliability of the source. Since the article itself did not provide any evidence of this woman’s existence, we have decided to delve deeper into the matter. Upon looking up the name Anna Mae Dickinson on Google, we have found several web pages where discussions about her had been led. On one of the pages, irishcentral.com, we have found out that Anna was fictional after all, and there are several arguments to prove it. The first argument stated that Fact-checker (a website for sorting out myths and legends) discovered that she had never even existed. According to Irishcenter, they even went as far as to check the list of passengers who were on the Titanic only to discover that no passenger under the name of Anna Mae Dickinson had been onboard. Furthermore, they traced the origin of the picture that was allegedly hers – only to discover that the picture was actually of a folk artist by the name of Anna Mary Robertson Moses a.k.a Grandma Moses. As this was not enough for us, we also wanted to make sure that Grandma Moses existed and, according to Wikipedia, she did exist and she lived from 1860-1961. Since Wikipedia isn’t a 100% reliable resource since anyone can alter the data on that site, we continued our search for Grandma Moses and we found proof of her existence on the site Britannica. We consider Britannica to be a reliable source since it has a 250 year old history of storytelling.

1. Why do we trust some sources more than others?

In order to properly answer this question, we think it is important to differentiate between online sources(reviews, blog posts, tweets etc.) and newspapers. It is harder to find credible sources when they are posted online, however, that does not make all newspapers reliable solely because of their primary objective i.e to relay information. Nowadays, due to the advancement of technology, there are online versions of newspapers as well but we will get to that later in the text. Right now, when we are specifically talking about online sources, we believe there are certain criteria the sources must fulfil for them to be considered reliable:

1) Reputation

In order to be recognized as reliable, a source has to have the reputation of a credible website. When we speak about informative websites, the first one that pops into most minds is Wikipedia. This website is known for providing information about various specific topics. It is, essentially, a website where people share their knowledge with the world and, therefore, for most people it is their go-to site. Unlike newspapers, these types of sites do not spin
stories to convince you of their truthfulness but rather lay out the cold, hard facts.

2)Writing style/Register

More often than not, we trust sources which are well-structured in terms of language use. If the information given is organized in an “official-like” manner i.e. written using the proper register, it is more likely that people will believe these sources as they are well-thought-out, making them “look the part”.

3) Content

Nonetheless, even if the proper register is used, what is most important, at the end of the day, is what is written – the content. No matter how you “decorate” a source, if the content is garbage and serves no purpose and does not provide any kind of information, then it is not considered to be a reliable source.

Now let us get back to the question of newspapers as reliable sources. We have decided to rely on expert opinions when it comes to deciding what type of newspaper is a trustworthy source. The following list is taken from Mike Caufield’s book Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers (the link is provided by prof. Greta in the ‘Course materials and assignments’ section):

As per this list, it is made quite apparent that experts have been studying this very question of which newspaper to consider reliable, and we would just like to add that we particularly agree with the ‘Agenda’ part – that newspapers should not be driven by bias and that they should return to their roots and that is to simply exist as a tool of relaying information to its readers.

2. Why do you think that newspapers have such a good reputation for truthfulness and care compared to the average online site (or vice versa)? What sort of economic incentives has a newspaper historically had to get things right that a clickbait online site might not have had?

We believe that this might have something to do with the fact that newspapers have existed longer than websites. A good reputation is something that is acquired over time. Newspaper agencies know how hard it is to earn a good reputation and how only one mistake can be detrimental to their image. Those that want to be known for their quality content will always double-check all the facts and strive to deliver the best quality articles. On the contrary, these days, anyone can sit down and write something on the Internet. The next reason is also linked to time. Newspapers can cover the older generation of readers, who are still more likely to read printed sources, and they also have the younger generation covered as many newspapers have an online version of their newspaper. However, in the case of online sites, only the younger generation of readers can actually utilize and read them by way of the internet considering they grew up with technology and are more well-versed in making use of it. Also, another possibility could be that the viewpoint which is still prevalent among the older generation about how the internet is a shady place where facts are considered to be invalid and bogus.

In the second part of this question, it is implied that newspapers receive more “encouragement” to publish than your average online site. This is understandable because in the past, people had fewer options to stay informed and it was important for the government to keep up with world affairs. That was especially important if there was a war going on or something that could decide the fate of a particular country as well. Of course, someone needed to pay the expenses for all of that. If we go back in time even further, we will recall that very few people were literate at the time. Newspapers and other print sources were accessible only to the well-off. Being educated and wealthiness often went hand in hand. So, reporters were, also, likely to be educated and respected members of society which cannot be said for today’s people who post online. Nowadays, if someone were to create and run a website, they would need to start from scratch, with no one to provide financial support.

Sources:
Caulfield, M. (2018, April 16). Lucky Ana. Four Moves. https://fourmoves.blog/2018/04/16/lucky-ana/
Drohan, F. (2018, August 25). Factcheck: Did this woman really survive the Titanic, Hindenburg, Pearl Harbor AND 9/11. Irish Central. https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/anna-mae-dickinson-genuine
Evon, D. (2018, April 12). Did a Woman Survive the Titanic, Hindenburg, Pearl Harbor, and 9/11? Snopes. https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/woman-survive-titanic-hindenburg-pearl-harbor-9-11/
Wikipedia. (n.d.). Grandma Moses. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grandma_Moses
Encyclopædia Britannica, & T.E.E.B. (2020, September 3). Grandma Moses. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Grandma-Moses

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