When the Worldwide Web came on the scene, teachers had to start new classroom discussions about reliable sources of information. We used to explain the difference between a published book or encyclopedia with a copyright and decent author, and your mother’s friend on the phone. “A lady called this morning before school and said the college burned down,” or some such statement from a fifth-grader would result in an impromptu talk, and of course there were the formal lessons on how to conduct research for a report in English class.
But whoa! All of a sudden there were speedier ways to look up facts and more of them. Commercial websites, Wikipedia, and the Google search engine presented us with information faster than we could switch on the computer. The trouble was, who was trustworthy? How did we know if what a website said was true? If we found two opposing facts on the same subject, which was correct?
Generally, we told the kids, look at what comes after the dot in the URL. The ending “.com” stands for commerce, which means there is money involved somewhere. Better sources have endings “.org” for an organization, “.gov” for government and “.edu” for education. Those writers are likely to check facts closely and have more background knowledge on their subjects. Scholars at universities probably trump (no pun intended) web writers used by governmental agencies, at least for me. Also, for documentation, researchers must find the name of the author. If it is cite-worthy, someone needs to be the “go to guy” for it.
Then there’s Wikipedia. Its authors are whoever the heck wants to add a few words. Now sometimes those accounts are accurate, and sometimes they are not. They usually carry footnotes and give a general idea of what you really want to look at another source for. But you’d never quote them in an article for a professional journal.
There’s also the dilemma of primary sources. I love them. When I had Theodore Roosevelt’s boyhood journal in my hand at the Harvard library, I was in heaven. “Theodore held this when he was observing birdlife on Long Island,” I kept thinking. I literally kicked myself to see if I wasn’t dead.
But we must also be wary, because the accounts and photographs from particular eras in history were filed by real people who had biases and opinions, too. A classic example: the eyewitness accounts of the Lincoln shooting at Ford’s Theatre in 1865. Members of the audience were interviewed soon after the horrible event, and meticulous notes taken. Not surprisingly, all of them were different.
It’s a percentage thing, like many others. You do the best you can with what you’ve got. If you find the same information in at least three places, they told us in Reporting Class at Ball State, it’s probably right. Just remember that there’s only One who knows all of the truth in human events, and He’s not talking about them right now.