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Evaluating the credibility of online sources

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Brief Assignment Overview: 

Type of Assignment: 
Assignment Length: 
Additional Pedagogical Goals: 

To help students learn to assess the credibility of sources they find on the web (or any other format). 

Media Requirements: 
Required Materials: 

A classroom with a media terminal, internet access, projector ... and your boundless enthusiasm. 

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

In lesson plan below, suggested questions are prefaced by a “Q."

Brackets represent suggested directives, physical or otherwise.


[One or two classes before assign students page 184 -192 in Lundford’s Easy Writer]

Part I:

Begin the class by opening up the following webpage:

It is important to scroll down enough to obscure the banner at the top (this will provide for your dramatic moment later).

Q: "Is this source credible? Why? Why not?

What might their bias be?"

One of your students might know the reputation of the John Birch Society, but it is a lot more likely no one will have any idea and they will stare at you like a pack of Skinheads who you just assigned to anthologize every Jon Bon Jovi album ever recorded.

Q: "How might we gather this?"

They will probably come up blank at first which will provide you with the opportunity to point out the word "tyrannical" at the beginning of graph four.

Hopefully, they notice the call to action in the final graph. If not, point it out.

Pressure your congressman into cosponsoring and passing H.R. 2908; send them a message now.

[the web text includes a hyperlink to one of those email-to-your-congressman templates – click on it, chances are they have never seen one]

Q: “Is this the kind of thing we would expect from an impartial media outlet or a scholarly journal—would say the New York Times, USA Today, or Time magazine make a plea to their audience to ‘pressure their congressman’ to pass specific legislation?”

Here you can point out the pathos of making a direct call to action and how this affects the author’s ethos.

[At this point, you should inching back toward the computer terminal…]

Q: “How else might we determine their credibility? What else could we look for on the site?”

[Scroll up to the banner, then quickly run back to the screen. At this point you should be preparing to point. It is important to physically touch the screen and also get the light of the projector in your eyes. Students will notice the ‘inadvertent’ comedy of these acts and continue to pay attention even though the topic is not exactly Dancing with the Stars]   you are now pointing to the banner which reads 'Less government, more responsibility, and—with God's help—a better world.')

Ah-hah. Didn't see that coming did they? Hopefully, they did—but probably not.

Q: “How else might we determine if this organization and the author is credible? (And what ethos they are creating?)”

[Go back to the computer terminal and scroll over to the author, Ann Shibler’s, byline.] 

Side note: even though you have of course looked through the website before coming to class, you might perform like you were searching right then and there. When I use this rouse, I doubt they are fooled, but they seem to come away from it more convinced the information is indeed there and if they search more diligently they too can find it.]

Q: “Does it tell us anything about this author or her expertise, if she doesn’t have a separate webpage? Does it tell us anything at the bottom of the piece?” No. Huh, it seems this website provides almost no information about the author, so what might we look for now… let’s check out the “about” page on the website.”

[This brings up a menu of “core principles,” “leadership, history,” “myths vs. facts”, and “pressroom.” Click on “history”.]

    The first two paragraphs of the John Birch Society’s description of its history:

Formed by Robert Welch in December 1958, The John Birch Society takes its name from the legendary World War II Army Captain John Birch. The organization's overall goal, never altered in the 50-plus years of its existence, has always been to create sufficient understanding amongst the American people about both their country and its enemies, so that they could protect freedom and ensure continuation of the nation's independence.

Always an education and action organization, the Society has never deviated from its opposition to communism and any other form of totalitarianism, certainly including the steady drift toward total government currently arising from within our own shores. But the positive promise of what can be built in an atmosphere of freedom has always been more of a motivation for members than any negative fear of what must be opposed. 

There is so much to work with here. Take your pick of nearly almost any sentence in any paragraph. The most obvious and important example would be the statement in graph two:

“Always an education and action organization, the Society has never deviated from its opposition to communism and any other form of totalitarianism, certainly including the steady drift toward total government currently arising from within our own shores.

Q: the organization is stating upfront what its mission is, how does this affect their credibility (and ethos)?

Side note: how awesome is the picture on the right? This is going up as my wall paper.

The John Birch Society is an easy target, so it’s important to move on to a more difficult one. I tried to stay with the same topic just for continuities sake.

Part II

Catherine Forsythe’s Open Salon blog.

Forsythe’s text is short and to the point and does not contain any inflammatory language (although it does contain a grammatical error or two which will actually help illustrate your point later on). To support her argument—and show us how it was constructed—she includes different links to pieces by CBS, ABC, Consumer Reports, the Washington Post, and the LA Times.

Q: “Is Catherine Forsythe credible? (what is her ethos)?”

This one is much trickier and that is precisely the idea. Salon certainly has an agenda, but this situation is complicated even further by the fact Forsythe is writing for Open Salon, a blog connected to Salon, but not produced or explicitly endorsed by the organization (as you might have guessed Open Salon basically is  some web developer plan to drive up their web travel).  

Q: “Who is Catherine Forsythe? Is she a professional journalist? Is she a semi-professional journalist? Is she ‘just’ a blogger? Does that make her less credible? 

How can we find out anything about Forsythe?”

[Open up a new browser tab and begin typing “Catherine Forsythe” into google; the first thing that comes up is her Open Salon blog, a facebook page, a myspace page, and a linkedin page. Some of the sites may not even be hers, not a lot to go off of …]

Q: What can we find out about the Open

[Direct the browser to Open Salon’s home page, once there, click on “What is Open Salon?”]

Here is what we find:

Open Salon is a social content site. What, precisely, can you do here? After a quick registration, you can start blogging immediately -- and rating and commenting on other posts, messaging other members, and more. You can also invite other members into Open Salon from your own blog page.


The Open Salon home page functions like a real-time magazine cover. We spotlight the best content, but you can also see what other members are reading, rating and commenting on. A new issue goes up every evening at 8 p.m. ET; we update the cover every morning at 11 a.m. ET, and as necessary. In the near future, we'll begin featuring the best Open Salon content on the cover of We'll also be unveiling ways for you to earn money for your great work on Open.

 My class zeroed in on the phrases “social content site” and “after a quick registration, you can start blogging immediately.” They found this particularly troubling, and were ready to conclude Forsythe is not credible.

 Q: “Let’s not forget to do a bit of research on the main organization— What do we know about Might they have an agenda similar to the John Birch Society?” 

[Direct the browser back to Salon’s main page and scroll all the way down to the bottom and click on the “About” link]

On the About page, Salon describes itself as: 

the leading progressive news site, combining award-winning commentary and reporting on the most important issues of the day. Our core mission: uncover what truly matters in the world of news and culture. We do this through four core areas of coverage (News, Politics, Entertainment, Life), and through our vibrant, reader-fueled blog network, Open Salon.”

 Q: What are the important phrases, or even single words, that might reveal something about this organization?

The operative word here is “progressive,” which all of my students missed. When I asked if they understood what it meant, I received blank stares, and they need at least a brief introduction to put Salon in context. This is a great opportunity to show them an entirely legitimate use of Wikipedia.

[Guide your  browser to Wikipedia’s page on “progressivism”]


Q: “What about—are they credible?”

Now aware of Salon’s stated political ideology, most of my students wanted to dismiss them. If this happens you might want to explain:

a) many news organization’s have upfront ideologies

b) others have ideologies but never state them

c) in either case, admitting an ideology doesn’t necessarily make everything that organization produces untrustworthy—it’s just something we need to be aware of.  

 Hopefully you can end with the take-away: it is critical to place the rhetor’s bias (ethos)—they will need it in order to produce decent rhetorical analysis. 

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

Let’s not kid ourselves, evaluating sources is not a sexy topic. However, it is necessary for any introductory composition or advanced rhetoric courses that require outside research (which is most); students simply don’t know how to tell the difference between a credible source and something posted by a partisan, amateur, or even unnamed organization and it's our job to show them. 

Since this is not the greatest topic, a brief piece of advice--speak loud and definitively; run back and forth from the podium to the projector; point aimlessly at the screen; and aggressively your head at any student participation like it is the most fascinating thing you have ever heard.

Instructions For Students: 

Nod head enthusiastically. 

Evaluation Suggestions: 


Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

I have used this lesson plan twice so far, and each time, it does the trick. Students learn to avoid citing nefarious sources and become critical of what they are reading on the web. 

Course Description: 

I used this lesson plan in 306 Introduction to Rhetoric and Writing courses 

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