Fact or fake?


Thirty-nine years after taking my first course in library science, Reference Materials and Services, I have finally realized why Miss Wilhelm had us evaluate 450 non-fiction books in one semester; that would be examining and evaluating 32 books a week or 4.5 books a day. I reached this epiphany because of the seemingly constant and divisive emphasis on television and social media coverage regarding “fake news.”

Before you decide I am going to offer an opinion pro or con, about the media’s reporting of events, and stop reading, please be reassured that is not the focus of this particular column. However, I do want to share a bit of expertise which I hope will help you evaluate what we all are seeing/reading in print and hearing/listening to on television/radio.

In the past few months it has dawned on me that, for all these years, and now more so than ever, I have sometimes consciously, and apparently, unconsciously, made Miss Wilhelm’s lessons an integral part of my life. Little did I realize then that what started as a “drill” assignment would become a lifelong habit that would serve me well, far beyond any job/position.

Here are the assessment criteria that can be applied to any/all factual (supposedly and real) information you are reading and hearing.

Authority: What expertise does the author/speaker possess? How are they qualified to write about or speak about the topic? Directly related to authority is author bias/perspective. Does the person have an axe to grind? Are they of a particular persuasion, such as political or religious, that skews their viewpoint? Are they arguing their case from an individual point of view or presenting a balanced representation of the topic?

Scope: What is the depth and breadth of the material presented? Is there background information included to support the author’s claims? With written material such as books this could include a bibliography, appendices or further reading. Scope is harder to ascertain with social media, television or radio but still doable with some searching on reliable and/or fact checker websites.

Visuals: Are there supporting graphs, charts, pictures, video, etc. that enhances/clarifies the material presented. Do these visuals include a documented source from where they were obtained?

Miss Wilhelm’s list included additional factors we had to evaluate but these would apply only to books. Less and less are people reading factual books for educational/personal interest. We are increasingly becoming a Googleized and listen-to-the-talking-heads society. This does not mean we have to take everything we see and hear as correct/right and factual. To do so would be irresponsible and lazy.

Why not make it a habit to listen and/or read with some discernment and the application of the criteria above. If you still have questions or concerns check out and even cross-check one of these reliable/authoritative websites:

≤ FactCheck.org checks claims made by presidents, members of Congress, presidential candidates, and other members of the political arena by reviewing TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews, and news releases.

≤ Politifact checks claims by politicians at the federal, state and local level, as well as political parties, PACs and advocacy groups and dates the accuracy of these claims on its Truth-O-Meter.

≤ Snopes.com was originally founded to uncover rumors that had begun cropping up in chain emails and message boards and is now highly regarded for its fact-checking. This is a great site for checking urban legends.

I wouldn’t be a librarian if I didn’t also include a book to help you with the plethora of fake news accusations. The Verification Handbook is a step by step guide for verifying digital content. They have a check list much like what I’ve shared with you and my favorite criteria is “Ask an Expert.” Guess who is listed as the expert? A LIBRARIAN.

We will never return to the days of the Huntley Brinkley Report (“Good night, Chet.” “Good night, David.”) Walter Cronkite (“And that’s the way it is.”), Paul Harvey (“Hello Americans, this is Paul Harvey. Stand by for NEWS!” He always ended, “Paul Harvey … Good day.”) and the daily afternoon edition of The Lewistown Sentinel. These were the trusted voices of the past. Today, we must be our own evaluators of the news we are reading and hearing because we are bombarded with 24/7 news channels, thousands of websites, online papers and social media. Be Miss Wilhelm’s new student this semester and learn to think critically about factual information.


Molly S. Kinney is the library director at the Mifflin County Library. In preparation for writing this column she dug through some old college boxes to unearth her “Reference Materials for Libraries” textbook and remembered all the hours she spent in the Slippery Rock University’s Bailey Library.