Gathering Information From Media & Digital Sources

Instructor: Lisa Kuchta

Lisa has a master's degree in communication, has taught college communication and writing courses, and has authored a textbook on presentation skills.

Learn how to find appropriate sources online and where to start looking. Learn how to evaluate the usefulness and reliability of the source materials you find online.

The Internet as a Wealth of Information

It happens to me so often in conversation: I will forget a fact, debate information, or get that nagging tickle in my brain that happens when something is on the tip of my tongue but I just can't quite seem to get it from my brain to my mouth. In years past, I would have had to 'phone a friend' for help or trek to the library to uncover the right answer, but nowadays it has never been simpler to access information through the magic of laptops, smartphones, and Google.

The Internet - much like a brick-and-mortar library - is chock full of information in countless subject areas and genres. But, unlike a library, the information you find on the Internet often lacks reliability and accuracy. The Internet allows for everyone's voice and perspective to be heard. While that comes with tremendous benefits, it also means that it becomes difficult to discern expert opinions from non-expert ones. And when we need true, trustworthy information, this mismatching chorus of voices becomes problematic. The simple truth is that when you are conducting research on the World Wide Web, the benefit of convenient access to information unfortunately comes with the disadvantage of unreliability. Thankfully, there are ways to find accurate sources, if you know where to look and how to judge the information you find.

Finding the Right Sources

In the quest for accurate information, it helps to consider where you might begin looking. The type of information you need will affect where you look, but let me offer some quick guides. A generic Google search is not always the best place to start, since it will provide you with anything from reputable articles to personal blogs filled with unfounded opinions.

If you need academic information for a paper or detailed report, a good place to start would be Google Scholar (scholar.google.com), which only searches through academic journals and books. The benefit to this search engine is that the vast majority of the information available through it is accurate and thoroughly reviewed by experts. The downsides are that not all information is available in full-text format (which means you might have to take the link to your local library to see if you can get the actual article or book) and the information you find might be overly technical. Because much of academic writing is written for people already in that chosen field, reading the reports as a newbie or outsider may make you feel like you are reading an unknown foreign language.

If you need up-to-date information on a current event or issue, a better place to start would be a news search, like Google News (news.google.com). This will provide you with newspaper, news channel, and news magazine sources, which have teams of reviewers and editors to help ensure that information is mostly accurate. For historical news sources, try the extensive archives of The New York Times online (www.nytimes.com).

If neither of these search engine types work for your researching needs, you certainly can use regular search engines like Google, Yahoo!, or Bing, but you need to approach your searching with a cautious and critical eye.

Evaluating Your Web Sources

Whenever you find web sources through Google or other search engines - whether they are articles, webpages, or even instructional videos - you need to evaluate their credibility. One way to do this is to apply the CRAAP test, as developed by librarians at California State University Chico, to each source you find:

C for Currency - How recently was the source published, posted, or updated?

Most articles and videos will include publication dates. If you find a webpage with no publication date, look for a copyright date at the bottom of the site to give you an idea as to whether or not the webpage is still actively reviewed. Currency is a particularly important consideration when researching current events or in fields that consistently change or get updated (like science, technology, etc.); it may not be as crucial when looking for historical information.

R for Relevance - How well does the information fit your needs?

You may be able to find brilliant and interesting articles, webpages, and videos, but if they don't help you answer your research questions or relate specifically to your paper or presentation topic, then they're not the right sources for you.

A for Authority - Who wrote the information and what credibility does s/he have on the topic?

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