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Evaluating information sources in a 'fake news' era


Fake news, post-truth, alternative facts.

As a librarian, I am simultaneously discouraged and hopeful as these phrases enter our lexicon.

On the one hand, I am heartened that discussions on the reliability of information sources has taken center stage in our public discourse.

On the other hand, terms like "fake news" don’t quite capture the complexity of critically evaluating information sources. "Fake news" suggests a false dichotomy between real and fake, failing to distinguish blatant lies from half-truths, misleading images, unsubstantiated claims or satire. And "fake news" already is being usurped as a convenient label for anything that does not fit with one’s own opinions.

These gradations of information have always been around; what has changed is the rapidity with which they spread through social media.

The catchphrase "fake news" and its attendant pithy terms, belies an increasingly complex information landscape. The issue is about more than peddling intentional falsehoods on the internet.

It is about limiting our exposure to only that information which confirms existing beliefs.

In an age when many of us get our information from social media, consider the implications when the underlying social media algorithms are set up in such a way to show us more of what we like and agree with and filter out that which doesn’t confirm our opinions.

Similarly, as we like and follow people and posts that confirm our opinions, and unfriend those that don’t, we are creating our own filtered reality.

The Wall Street Journal’s Red State, Blue State interactive graphic effectively illustrates this problem.

It is about understanding why some information gets published and some does not.

Recent revelations that the sugar industry in the 1960s paid scientists to downplay the connection between sugar consumption and heart disease is a stark example of how information suppression can directly impact our well-being.

Similarly, we are currently facing gag orders and restrictions on the ability of Environmental Protection Agency scientists to share their findings.

It is about bad research and irresponsible reporting. A single poorly researched and subsequently retracted study suggesting that vaccines cause autism spurred an anti-vaccine movement that still persists.

It is about recognizing that the absence of information is information itself.

For example, the removal of the phrase "climate change" from state and federal government websites for political reasons tells us something, as does the dearth of research on gun violence as a result of a law withholding funding for it.

As we consume more information online, evidence suggests that we are unprepared to think critically about it. A recent Stanford study described the ability of students from middle school through college to do so as “bleak.”

As demoralizing as this sounds, I am encouraged that "fake news" discussions are bringing up issues that librarians have long championed.

As librarians, we are committed to providing access to reliable information. We teach the information literacy skills of finding, evaluating and selecting appropriate and reliable information sources, usually in relation to academic pursuits.

Events such as the rancorous presidential campaign, mistrust in the scientific method and a growing partisan divide have made it more imperative that we employ these skills in our daily lives.

Here are some strategies:

  • Demand to see sources: We teach students to cite their sources when writing research papers, and we should expect the same of the media we consume. Reliable sources reveal where they get their information.
  • Consider the source: It’s not enough to see a source. Investigate it. Who are they? Why are they posting information? Do they have a particular agenda that might impact the information they produce or share? Search their names. Look them up on Wikipedia. Lists of "fake news" and biased news sites are popping up. They are imperfect and sometimes controversial, but some can be helpful. Their credibility lies in their transparency in determining criteria and equity in applying it. One such site is False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and Satirical “News” Sources by Melissa Zimdars.
  • Fact check, fact check, fact check: Not sure how to do that? Make use of sites like snopes.com or politifact.com that make it their business to fact check. Or call your librarian! Make sure your fact checkers are transparent and thorough in describing their processes.
  • Demand evidence: If a claim is made, expect it to be backed by evidence. Are there statistics? Where did they come from? Was a study done and perhaps replicated? If you encounter a major surprising announcement or BREAKING NEWS (in all caps), look for corroborating sources. Did a social media post on the internet report that Paul McCartney is dead (again)? Check for confirming sources before sharing the sad news with your Beatles fan friends.
  • Pay attention to images: Images can also be used to distort the truth. We are well aware of the lies that even rudimentary Photoshop skills allow us to tell. Be on the lookout for false or appropriated images. Utilities such as Google’s reverse image search can help to identify where else an image has appeared online.
  • Resist clickbait (and if you fall for it, be wary of what you find there): Clickbait refers to the compelling headlines that sell news — fake or real or somewhere in between — to reap advertising revenue. While we may be savvy enough to recognize a headline promising a single food to reduce belly fat as clickbait, we may be hopeful enough to click on it anyway. Increasingly, legitimate and trusted news sources are employing click-bait style headlines to capture our attention.
  • Abandon those old heuristics: It’s no longer true — indeed, it never was — that URLs ending in .edu and .gov are inherently trustworthy and those ending in .com are not. For example, information on potentially partisan issues like contraception, education and environmental protection found on government websites (.gov) changes to reflect the values of an incoming administration. And an article found on an education website (.edu) may in fact be a college freshman’s C- paper. Look out for URLs designed to intentionally mislead you. NBC.com.co, for example, is a fake news site mimicking NBC.com.
  • Check your own biases: This is a difficult one. Challenge yourself to seek out respected news sources that may have a perspective different from your own. Read editorials and commentaries of people with whom you disagree. And please, read the article, check the date and vet the source before clicking share!

McIntyre librarians teach information literacy skills as invited guest instructors in classes across all disciplines.

We also teach full courses, such as the Honors course, “Living in an Information Society,” and First-Year Experience bundled courses on “Critical Approaches to Information.”

For more on how the library’s instruction program is evolving, see this blog post by librarian Kate Hinnant.

We live in a "fake news, post-truth, alternative fact" era in which it is easier than ever to create and share widely information that is neither curated nor substantiated.

The onus is on us as the consumers of that information to be vigilant and skeptical.

Jill Markgraf is the head of research and instruction in McIntyre Library at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. You can reach her at markgrjs@uwec.edu.


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