How to research: the basics, fake news & more

betty ming liu Writing how-to's 10 Comments

Dread doing research? Fear no more. This post is for you. And teachers, if you’re doing a unit on this sleep-inducing topic, I’ve gathered some useful links for you. They will help keep students awake. Maybe they’ll even get woke!

Getting woke means being aware of race issues and how the world really functions. Now more than ever, research gives us the power of truth in a world filled with lies, hate and fake news. The easiest and fastest way to research is to go online. After all, Americans who are under 50 rely on the Internet for news, according to a Pew Research Center study.

By the way, please note what happened in that last sentence. I mentioned a statistic about people who are under-50. Then, I followed up with a link to the source of this information. That’s our goal right now. We want to figure out how to find reliable, credible sources worth citing.

This blog post gives you tips and links to videos, websites, stories and handouts — all free. They’re good enough to hold the attention of my students, who are a tough crowd. (I say that with pride.) Even I enjoyed the material and found a few aha! moments.  :)

These resources come at a time when most young people struggle to decode the endless data streaming through their cell phones. Most of them are confused by what they see. They can’t confidently tell the difference between what’s true and what’s junk, according to a 2016 Stanford University study. 

Hopefully, this post will help researchers of all ages. Once you finish reading, you’ll know the basics for doing research and spotting fake news.

What is research?

Of course, we’ve all searched key words on Google.  Our search results often include something from Wikipedia. But beware. This free encyclopedia is unreliable. Most schools and universities ban Wikipedia from student and professional research papers because the website entries can be wrong. After all, absolutely anyone can write or edit a Wikipedia item. Did you know that?

Still, I read Wikipedia for a general idea of the topic. The entries usually mention other organizations and websites that I’ll go to for additional information. When most of us Google search, we might read a Wiki page, then click on a link or two. In real life, this is where our research usually stops.

But if we’re woke, the real research starts with the next steps.

Background research 

To research in a hurry, try my two secret tricks. They work great when I need an instant overview. The topics can be anything. The key words can range from “seafood,” “sneakers” and “asthma,” to “family vacations,” names of specific cities and historic events.

  • Key word(s) + “blog directory.” If I type “seafood blog directory,” Google will deliver a whole bunch of blogs about seafood, ranging from quality websites to crap. If I type “family vacations blog directory,” I get blogs on how to plan family vacations and where to go. Blogs are run by individuals and organizations with a specific point of view or agenda. So read with a critical eye for detail, accuracy and truth.
  • Key word(s) + “association.” If I search an event like “World War 1 association,” the Internet spits out links to historical organizations filled with history buffs. If I’m interested in an item like sneakers, searching “sneaker association” turns up links to industry groups that track sneaker sales, trends and sneaker manufacturers. Associations of all types exist to make themselves look good. Sure, they’re biased that way. But they still provide useful info.

Read the “about” section

Everybody’s trying to sell us something, whether it’s an idea, a product or a cause. To get to the truth, we have to analyze the websites we’re visiting. Who owns the url, the address we’ve landed at? Read carefully. If the “facts” about a product or company are super-positive, then you know they’re the self-promoting owners. You’re not getting a balanced picture with the pros and cons.

So always, always read a website’s “about” or “about us” section. Evaluate the content and tone. A super-flattering write-up or outrageous claims of greatness should make you suspicious. A credible “about” provides details on the organization’s leaders, with specifics on how the operation runs.

Useful research links

Check out the Brigham Young University website. You’ll find three fantastic, super-short videos about how to research. They have the slightly-creepy look of a futuristic video game. They move relatively fast, with music.

videos about research

Click this link, then choose these three videos from the navigation menu:

  • “Research Process” (2:15 minutes) briefly explains what to do, step-by-step.
  • “Types of Sources” (3:06) breaks down where to go for info, from Google, to the media and more.
  • “Evaluating Resources” (3:14) describes how to rate each source for bias, accuracy, quality.

My students found the first two videos a bit boring. But at least they stayed awake and were more attentive than if I was lecturing. By far, the video they liked the best was on “Evaluating Resources.” They said it had the most practical information.

To supplement these videos, read BYU’s “Step-by-Step Guide & Research Rescue” home page, with links. Really nice.

How to spot fake news

Fake news is made-up and usually outrageous. It exists for one purpose: to make money from advertising. When we click on crazy headlines claiming that so-and-so is having sex with underage teenagers, those clicks add up. They’re called “clickbait.” These high-traffic stories offer high visibility to advertisers.

To interest students in how fake news works, there’s a New York Times profile of Cameron Harris, 23. During the 2016 presidential election the recent college grad made a pro-Trump fake news story in 15 minutes. In a few days, he earned $5,ooo from ads posted on his website for shoes, hair gel and other products. The “Christian Times” domain name for his site cost $5. With no prior experience, Harris made at least $22,000, and maybe as much as $100,000 overall.

These get-rich-quick websites have a specific look and feel:

  • Tricky domain names and urls. The site abcnews.com is a real news website but abcnews.com.co is fake.
  • No writer’s name or byline on story. If there is a name, Google it. Is this writer a real person?
  • Tacky website design with CAPITAL LETTERS everywhere. These sites tend to look pretty bad.
  • Phony “about us” section.  Lack of info about who runs and owns the website.
  • Lack of quotes. The story might lack quotes or quotes non-existent people from made-up interviews.
  • Angry comments from readers. Analyze what readers are saying and if they complain of fakery.
  • Stolen photos. Do a reverse image search (right click on the pic). This reveals where the picture originally came from, if it was ripped off for reuse.
  • Story doesn’t appear elsewhere. Check legit news websites. If the story’s real, they’ll cover it, too.

Classroom fake news tools

  • Everything you need to know about fake news is in this excellent NPR piece: “Fake Or Real? How To Self-Check The News And Get The Facts.” It includes terrific links, like the one for an in-depth guide to more than 900 fake news websites.
  • How to spot fake news on social media? Here’s a groovy, 2-minute video made by the Washington Post. Too bad the fake news-detecting app mentioned in the video no longer exists. But still a good video.
  • How to spot fake newsFor a cool infographic that would project well on a big classroom screen, try “Evaluating a News Article.” (The thumbnail is to your right.) Fun summary of eight important questions to ask.
  • If you need a PDF handout, I found one that covers the same points as the infographic but in a checklist format. Not as pretty but useful.
  • The New York Times has two fake news lesson plans for teachers. Earnest and a bit dull but solid. One addresses needs of English Language Learners. The other one is more general.

Is this helpful?

Let me know what you think. And please share this link with every student, teacher, professor and instructor you know. In fact, share it with everyone, because lots of people feel insecure about their research skills but are ashamed to admit it.

Share the post, share the love. We live in dark, dark times. Our ability to research and tell the truth can only make life better for us all. xo

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      betty ming liu

      Thanks for sharing, Mary. It will save everyone a lot of time. I was so happy to find the various links. They make it SO MUCH easier to teach this stuff.

      Also, to high school and even middle school teachers — I think this material is easily adaptable to your students’ needs. :)

  1. Ivan

    One more thing that people should check are the memes that are going viral with what appears to be fake news. Too many people I know were posting and citing that meme of Trump allegedly claiming he’d never as a Republican because they were the “dumbest group,” when he never uttered those words.

    http://edition.cnn.com/2016/11/10/politics/trump-quote-facebook-trnd/

    I’ve told a lot of people if it’s a meme that’s trying to spread info, don’t post it and search for the truth behind it, if there is any.

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