Mistrust and Verify

June 4, 2016

As an editor, I’ve always had to do a certain amount of fact-checking—names, dates, places, and other facts. I thought I was fairly good at it, since I’d been fact-checking in one form or another for 30 years. Before the Internet came along, I had a massive set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica that I used to dig through, sitting on the floor surrounded by open volumes. And since the Internet, I’ve spent a lot of time online doing research, surrounded by open tabs on my browser.

In 2014, however, I got a project to fact-check an entire book, and it became clear to me that I had a lot to learn when it came to fact-checking and online research. I finished the book and the client was happy with the results, but I wasn’t happy with how long it took me and how frustrating it was to locate and verify some of the facts (or not locate and verify them in a few cases).

Since that project, I’ve been reading about fact-checking and trying to learn more about it, when I’ve had the time. I shared what I’d learned in a series of blog posts between November 2015 and April 2016. Now I’ve gone through those posts, reorganized them, and compiled the best points into a PDF, in case the links and advice might be helpful to others.

The topics covered in this blog (and the PDF) include books and news articles, blogs and resources, links, search techniques, and sometimes things that just strike me as interesting. I’ve also included things that may seem pretty basic to some readers, but little things can make a big difference if you’re not aware of them.

This isn’t a blog about political fact-checking. I’m an editor, not a journalist or a campaign worker.

I’m calling this “Mistrust and Verify” in remembrance of a friend I used to work with. When he’d proofread something, he’d say, “There’s a mistake on this page, and I’m going to find it.” And since he was a good proofreader, he often found quite a lot. That’s a helpful attitude to have in fact-checking, too—not “These facts are probably correct,” but “These facts may well be wrong, and they’re not to be trusted until they’re verified.” I don’t recommend skepticism as a personality trait, but it can be very helpful in fact-checking. As Craig Silverman put it in his Verification Handbook, the basic principle of verification is “How do you know that?” And, if you’re going to be thorough about it, “How else do you know that?”

So here’s some advice on “How do you know that?” Or at least on how you can look into it. You can download my PDF of past blog posts below, and I hope to have updates throughout 2016.

8. July 2017

posted Jul 27, 2017, 12:46 PM by Frank Steele

July 27, 2017

I’ve been editing a 130,000-word dissertation for the last two months, and I think I’m seeing signs of it ending soon. Thank God. (Better it than me.) The work has been interesting, but I don’t think I’m cut out for long-term academic work.

Among other things (laundry, cleaning, exercise), I’m way behind on this blog. Following are some interesting or possibly helpful posts and articles that have come in while I’ve been off in dissertation land.


How to sort Google search results by date
This June 30 post from Dan Russell at SearchReSearch answered a question that I’d had for a long time: Once you’ve got a list of Google search results, how do you sort them in chronological order? He explains:

Turns out it's not hard, just slightly obscure.

Here's a simple way to do it...  

First, do your search, then limit by time, THEN you can sort the results by date. 

There’s a very detailed example and even a short instructional video. If you’re interested, check it out. Works great.

 

Bing News
Also back in June, ResearchBuzz had a two-part series titled “Is Bing News Worth Using? (Spoiler: Yes).” (Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here.)

The introduction says:

Google News has dominated news search as completely Google has with its Web search. With over 50,000 sources as of 2013,  you might wonder if you need any other free service when you're looking for news.

Yes, you do. And I've got a suggestion for you: Bing News. It looks a bit plain compared to Google News, and hides its features in a frustrating way, but I find that Bing News search can bring you materials that you'd find above and beyond Google News. You just need to know a few tricks to get to them.

There’s a good example detailing how to turn a Bing News results page into an RSS feed, and, even if you don’t use Bing much, you might find some of the tips useful. In a later post, though, ResearchBuzz talks about some of the search results being low quality or junk. (This is a problem I’m seeing more often in Google searches, too, but it’s apparently more pronounced in Bing.)

 

Investigative Web Research
The Engine Room Library posted this nice, practical introduction to investigative web research. Unlike many such guides you’ll find online, this one was updated in June 2017, making it up to date, relevant, and with working links. I haven’t read through it all yet, but what I’ve seen so far looks good.

 

The Week in Fact-Checking
I found the article on investigative web research in “The Week in Fact-Checking,” a regular newsletter from the American Press Institute. The page it’s on (July 13, 2017) has other good articles, and you can sign up for their newsletter here.

 

Deep Web Research Sources
Chris Stobing at Comparitech wrote a good post back in June titled “Using deep web search engines for academic and scholarly research.” This isn’t describing the Dark Web, land of drug dealers and other illicit sites, but the part of the web that’s home to massive databases and information sources that total around 7.5 petabytes. He provides a nice overview of the academic and research sources available, and there are a few more listed in the comments.

These databases are often (but not always) protected by paywalls, of course. About this, Chris says:

If paywalls are a problem for you, one tool we recommend checking out is the Google Chrome browser extension Unpaywall. Unpaywall automatically scours the web for a free version of any content you’re trying to access that says it’s behind a paywall. You may not always get back a free result for every paper you search, however it’s still nice to know the option is there if you need it in a pinch.

And that’s it for July. In August, I’m hoping to combine all these updates into the PDF posted at the top of the page. But I think I said something like that back in May.

7. May 2017

posted May 18, 2017, 11:05 AM by Frank Steele   [ updated May 18, 2017, 11:06 AM ]

May 18, 2017

It’s been a busy time, especially since I returned from the ACES 2017 conference at the end of March. Fact-checking has been less frequent and editing and proofreading have ramped up considerably, so I’ve been thinking about merging all these updates into the body of the main PDF. But before I do—if I do—I’ll post a few things I’ve noticed during the last few months.


Verifying quotes
The SearchReSearch blog had a good post on checking quotes back in March, Face it: Tracking down quotes was never easy... Daniel Russell has the usual good and helpful examples, with the search lessons at the end:

1.  When searching for a long quote, search for the shortest "nugget" that contains the essence of a quotation.  Picking this nugget out of a long quote is often a matter of looking for the "least likely part to have been changed" (you know, the pithy, interesting part of the quote), and then keeping that searchable phrase as short as possible. 

2. When looking for a quote, don't accept someone's attribution (unless they're really well-known for getting it right).  Generally speaking, you want to see the original text (or a clearly correct transcription of the spoken word). There are relatively few places that I'll believe got the author attribution correct (the Quote Investigator, Snopes, FactCheck... places that have a strong reputation in getting the facts right).  

3.  Bear in mind that quotes often shift in length, spelling, and details. In many cases, the quotation tends to get shorter, pithier, and ascribed to even more famous people.

I should have paid more attention. I got the attribution wrong on a quote just a few days ago. The quote in question was “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” I just knew it was from C. S. Lewis. In fact, I think I even looked it up, saw a few sites where it was credited to him, and went on my merry way.

Well, I was mistaken. The quote was from Rick Warren, taken from his book The Purpose Driven Life. There’s a similar (but still fairly different) quote in Lewis’s Mere Christianity, but it’s not the one in question, as I discovered. I spent a fair bit of time trying to prove to myself that I hadn’t gotten it wrong, but I had. So score one for humility. Remember to double-check things even if you figure you don’t need to, and do so thoroughly.

 

Sleuthing with Google Streetview and Google Earth
An April post from SearchReSearch has a great “Where in the World Am I?” challenge based on a few photos, with tips on how to use Google Streetview, Google Earth, EXIF metadata and more. I felt like Sherlock Holmes at the end, putting the clues together to discover the where and even the why. Well, I actually felt more like Watson, watching Holmes figure it all out, but it was a good learning experience.

 

Using wildcards in Google and Google Scholar
ResearchBuzz had an April post on using wildcards in Google searches, “A Quick Look at Google's Full-Word Wildcard.” Google uses the asterisk as a wildcard, which means that if you put it in a search phrase in place of a word, you’ll get results with any word used in its place. For example, the search “three * mice” will bring up “three blind mice,” “three fat mice,” “three bald mice,” and so on.

You can also use the wildcard when you’re trying to find material on two terms that are related, but you’re not exactly sure how. The wildcard acts as the connector:

The point is that full-word wildcards are not just for Google searching a known phrase, though it can be useful for that. Instead it's invaluable as a proximity search tool when you're trying to explore two concepts that can't easily be linked as or with a common phrase. And as you can see, that's especially useful in Google Scholar.

 

How to set up a Google News alert on a famous person
Another helpful post from ResearchBuzz demonstrated how to set up a Google news alert on a famous person, such as Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt, for example, reducing the number of hits from something like 3.5 million to just a few thousand, or even four or five. It’s a good tutorial, especially if you haven’t used Google Alerts much.

 

That’s it for now. Have a wonderful May!

6. Feb. 2017

posted Feb 17, 2017, 12:53 PM by Frank Steele   [ updated Apr 5, 2017, 4:38 PM ]

February 17, 2017

I finally finished fact-checking a book that I had been working on. I received it in portions, between October 2016 and January 2017, and I spent 131 hours checking facts, figures, and quotes. Those were the billable hours at least. I probably put in another 15 to 20 hours off the books to pursue facts I couldn’t find, to study background information to help me with my queries, and to take care of record keeping and correspondence with the client. It was often fascinating work, as well as intense when there were short deadlines. The month of January had some of those short deadlines, which is why I haven’t updated my blog recently. I hope I can post a few updates this month.

The importance of using the right search terms

One thing I found during my book work was how important it was to do fact-checking with a clear mind. If I do long stretches of fact-checking without a break, or when my mind is full of other concerns, or when I’m tired, it goes much slower. I use poor search terms, get caught up in fruitless searches, and spend unnecessary time. I eventually find what I’m looking for, but it takes longer and is more frustrating.

The best work cycle for me seems to be about an hour and a quarter to an hour and a half of concentrated work, followed by a brief break. If I’m going back to fact-checking, I might spend 10 minutes or so on the break, to give myself a little mental distance. If I need to switch to other work for a while, the break might be shorter, since the work is different.

That schedule seems to help me formulate good search terms, which makes all the difference in fact-checking. Using the best words in the best order is vital, and if my mind is fuzzy, I just don’t seem to do it as well. Sometimes after I take a break I find things right away that I’d spent a lot of time looking for earlier. Maybe it just involved using a different word, putting the search words in a different order, or using different search operators.

It pays to work with a fresh mind, and it pays to really think about your search query before you begin, rather than leaping right in. The words you choose determine the results you get. If you’re interested, there’s a basic guide on selecting search terms here, and Daniel Russell’s posts at the Search ReSearch blog generally have good advice (and examples) on how to best word queries. Here’s a recent one on not overthinking terms, because sometimes simple is best. Who would have known “oreo cow” was a good search term?

 

February 24, 2017

366 links to understand fact-checking in 2016

I missed this post from Poynter back in December, and it’s a great article by Alexios Mantzarlis, chock-full of links. It’s basically the year (2016) in fact-checking. Most of it is political fact-checking rather than editorial fact-checking, but there’s still a lot to like. I thought this section near the end was helpful:

Tip sheets and training resources. Africa Check’s five step guide to fact-checking [335]. Tips from Les Observateurs and Google News Lab for image verification [336, 337]. A free online course by API and Poynter [338]. Plenty of resources by First Draft News starting from their social media verification guide [339, 340].

Seven things to consider before getting into fact-checking [341]. 5 tips for fact-checking claims about health [342]. Making your fact-checking better [343]. Learning from fact checkers' failures [344]. Tips for fact-checking a debate, and for fact-checking live events [345, 346].


I’m still going through the links, but I wanted to recommend the free online course by API and Poynter (#338 above). I took it last year and found it useful, and it’s just an hour or two.

 

dtSearch

Speaking of helpful, I don’t think I’ve mentioned dtSearch, which is a great program for searching masses of information in a variety of formats to find just what you need. I use version 7, which is probably a decade old, but I plan to upgrade eventually.

I use the version (now called dtSearch Desktop with Spider) that’s set up for internal use (on a PC rather than on the internet). If you have files (in a wide variety of formats, including text, rtf, doc, docx, pdf, html, and more), you can store them in a subdirectory and tell dtSearch to index them. Then, when you need to find a word or phrase (or words close to each other), you can search that subdirectory and find the answer quickly. You can sort on documents that have the most occurrences of the search term, the most recent, and much more. It’s a great program and I use it frequently. It’s not technically in the realm of fact-checking, but for finding facts on my computer, it’s the best program I’ve seen.

5. Dec. 2016

posted Dec 1, 2016, 6:17 PM by Frank Steele   [ updated Dec 27, 2016, 5:39 PM ]

December 1, 2016

Searching for related or parallel terms
In one of his latest posts at Search ReSearch, Daniel Russell talks about visiting the Greek island of Delos and seeing the name “M.C. Perry” carved into a stone at a temple there--seemingly very old graffiti. He wondered if this might be the famous Commodore Matthew Perry who forced Japan to open itself to trade in the 1850s after two hundred years of isolation. What follows is a very interesting research project: finding the ship that Perry was on, checking to see if it stopped at Delos, hitting a few dead ends, and finally researching the captain of that ship instead to discover that Perry almost certainly did visit that temple and carve his initials in the rock. It’s an interesting detective story in itself, but it also brings out the point that “Sometimes the shortest path to your goal is to find someone (or something) that must also be closely related to what you're searching.”

Links from a Toddington International newsletter
These might be helpful. I checked out the first one (public records search) to verify that it is indeed free. The others I’m posting here so that I’ll have a record of them to check out later:

blackbookonline.info - Free US-based public records search site

startpage.com - Private, Google-powered search engine that does not track users

refdesk.com - Search references, facts, and news
Refdesk is a great site. I hadn’t been there in a while, and I’d forgotten how many good features it has.


December 7, 2016

The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking
I ordered the new Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking (by Brooke Borel) a few weeks ago, and recently had time to finish reading it. I liked it. It’s a good, well-written, comprehensive book that covers every angle of editorial fact-checking. Like most books of its type, it’s mainly aimed at the fact-checker employed at a newspaper, magazine, or other media outlet, but it’s still useful to the independent fact-checker and to those who simply want to check their own work. There are chapters on why we fact-check, what we fact-check, how we fact-check, checking different types of facts, sourcing, record keeping, and testing your skills, as well as a small but up-to-date list of resources in the back. So if you’re into fact-checking, whether personally or professionally, you might find the book useful.

Reading over your work again
I’m in the third month of fact-checking a nonfiction book (the author is still writing it, but I go over chapters as they’re finished), and when I was going over a chapter again before returning it, I was reminded of an important lesson: Be sure to double-check your work. As I reread the text I’d checked, I found a few places where I hadn’t fully checked things and others where I’d misunderstood the question. And in a few places where I hadn’t been able to confirm a fact (I checked more than 420 items in the chapter), I was able to verify it; the answer was clearer since there’d been some time since I’d last gone over it, giving my subconscious more time to work on it. It pays to read over your work again. (I didn’t charge the client for this. Taking this extra time was worth it to me to make sure I got it right.)

False news and media bias
Recently there’s been quite a bit of news and commentary about fake news and the impact it might have had on the election. I’m pretty careful about the news I read and I didn’t really see much fake news this election cycle, but I did see an awful lot of biased news. In other words, one candidate or the other was either an angel or a devil, the second coming or the spawn of Satan, with very few (if any) bad or good points. I don’t recall noticing that so much in past presidential elections. Maybe doing fact-checking helps to sharpen what you might call your BS detector, and when you come upon an article or a post that’s full of unverifiable assertions or one that’s so unbalanced that the person being discussed has either no virtues or no flaws, it sets off an alarm. In any case, almost all the news I read seemed to be biased in one way or another, and I think that had much more of an impact on the election than fake news.

 

December 8, 2016

The Pocket Guide to Bulls--t Prevention
This is an older article (2014), but it has a nice 5-point set of principles in the beginning that’s simple and elegant (though they could have made the point without the obscenities):

1. Who is telling me this?
2. How does he or she know this?
3. Given #1 and #2, is it possible that he or she is wrong?
4. If the answer to #3 is yes, find another, unrelated source.
5. Repeat until the answer to #3 is “pretty f---ing unlikely.”

There’s also an example provided to illustrate the process.

“If a story is viral, truth may be taking a beating”
This New York Times article talks about how some publishers aren’t all that upset if viral content turns out to be fake. “If you throw something up without fact-checking it, and you’re the first one to put it up, and you get millions and millions of views, and later it’s proved false, you still got those views.”

It is unclear how much readers care whether a fascinating story is true or not, at least in terms of clicking on it. Melanie C. Green, a social psychologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, said that while people told her they cared deeply, their emotional responses remain the same either way. “It’s the same as movies or books,” she said. “We want to see something new, maybe escape our lives.”

 

December 12, 2016

Save time with Digle?

ResearchBuzz mentions this new search resource in its newsletter today:

From The Next Web: ‘Digle’ wants to gamify search for uber-specific queries. “UK startup ‘Digle’ wants to change the way we search for hyper-specific queries. Rather than digging in and sorting through pages of un-optimized sites, Digle gives you the option to hand the task off to someone else. These ‘Finders’ are then tasked with the grunt work in exchange for badges, higher positions on the leaderboard, and credits — which are redeemable for cash.”

If you have a simple search, using Google would be quicker, of course. But if you’re searching for a specific but obscure fact, Digle might be just the thing.


December 18, 2016

The Necessity of Credibility

I thought this article from Current Affairs was a good one, as it covered some fact-checking failures by the Washington Post as well as a shortcoming that any fact-checker can fall into: letting bias, opinion and personal interpretation affect your fact-checking. And it ties into media credibility and the “fake news” phenomenon that’s getting so much airtime these days:

By conjuring phony statistics (like “percentage of false statements”) and treating highly subjective and interpretive judgments as if they are Just The Facts, the press steadily erodes [its] credibility. … If “fact-checks” are not really fact-checks, but are centrist opinion pieces, the word “fact” comes to connote “the highly contentious views of people who call themselves fact-checkers” rather than anything about reality or the world as it actually exists. … Concerns about fake news are justified. But instead of begging our Silicon Valley overlords to crack down on the free sharing of information, we might start by building a mainstream press that has credibility of its own.

It made me take stock of my own possible bias when it comes to fact-checking. The article is long, but well-written, interesting, and worth the read.


December 27, 2016

Tracking foreign influence peddling in America: Tip sheet

Journalist’s Resource posted a tip sheet on how to keep track of foreign influence peddling with a variety of good links:

Every year, foreign governments and other overseas entities spend about half a billion dollars trying to influence American policy, according to the Project on Government Oversight. The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) enables researchers to track their spending and sway. under FARA, which is run by the U.S. Department of Justice, lobbyists and other organizations are required to regularly declare their relationships with foreign principals, their meetings, payments, as well as the informational materials they use to influence policy makers, such as presentations, email correspondence, even draft legislation. Much of the documentation is available on the FARA website.

Journalist’s Resource has a good regular newsletter with more tip sheets.

4. Nov. 2016

posted Nov 28, 2016, 6:03 PM by Frank Steele

November 28, 2016

After a string of 70-hour weeks, I’m caught up in some of my work, but I’m obviously way behind in writing posts for this blog. If anyone’s following it, sorry about that. Here are some things from my inbox over the last two months or so:


Finding email addresses
Search Engine Journal has a good article on “How To Find Anyone’s Email Address In 60 Seconds Or Less.” I haven’t tried it yet, but the techniques look good, helpful, and simple. I doubt it’ll take “60 seconds or less,” but then I’m a slow typist.


Site credibility/questionable posts
Dan Russell at SearchReSearch wrote a good post on site credibility weeks before the election, before fake news and posts were such a big deal. It’s his answer to the question “Who backs the site?” and it covers searching for the authors of a post and evaluating their credibility, checking out the site itself to spot fakery, cross-checking with other credible sites, and provides nice examples and commentary. Good how-to on assessing online content.

 

Think tanks and their research
Back in October, Journalist’s Resource posted an article on “Writing about think tanks and using their research: A cautionary tip sheet.”

Think tanks often provide valuable and impartial policy research. But entrenched conflicts of interest across the political spectrum, and pandering to donors, often raise questions about their independence and integrity. A few years ago, think tanks were seen as places for wonky scholars and former officials to bang out solutions to critical policy problems. But today, as the Boston Globe has written, many “are pursuing fiercely partisan agendas and are funded by undisclosed corporations, wealthy individuals, or both.” This tip sheet aims to help journalists ask critical questions before citing a think tank’s research or experts. 

Many think tanks are nonprofits, and are therefore required to file a Form 990 with the IRS. You can learn all sorts of interesting information from these tax returns, if you have the patience to wade through them (something I’ve done a lot over the past month). Nonprofit tax returns are available online at GuideStar, ProPublica, and Foundation Center, among other places. Sometimes one site will have returns and the others won’t, so try them all if necessary.

 

Excel and research
This is probably obvious, but if it looks like a project is going to involve a lot of information, including numbers, start a spreadsheet to keep track of the information you find, whether you use Excel, Google Sheets, or something else. I did that with a recent research project involving a variety of numbers, and I’m glad I did. I was able to log names, dates, amounts, notes, paste in the links to each site I checked, and so on. Having the data in visual form, in one place, where numbers could be added automatically and links were listed so that I could click on them to check and double-check things was both a godsend and a time-saver.

To be continued this weekend, I hope.

3. Sept. 2016

posted Sep 27, 2016, 6:35 PM by Frank Steele

September 27, 2016

What happened to August? For that matter, where’d September go? Time flies. Or as the saying goes: Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana. ... Some things I’ve been meaning to post:

 

Investigative Dashboard
This is a site I hadn’t heard of before: an excellent research portal for investigators, intelligence professionals, investigative journalists, and fact-checkers. When I searched the documents and databases, I found the names of some people I’d worked for some decades ago, which was interesting. And the list (and links) of recommended global databases is excellent. I’m looking forward to an excuse to use this in depth.

 

Wonder
Speaking of investigative sites, Wonder is a good one, judging by the quality of the answers I’ve seen on their site and their list of clients. The process is simple: You pose a question, pay $40, and the researchers at Wonder will research it and provide the answers you’re looking for.

I was impressed by the quality of the sample answers. If you go here and press “View example requests,” you can see several examples with analysis, insights, and links provided. They’re detailed, informative answers that go beyond the original questions. The researchers obviously studied the questions (which weren’t always very detailed, judging by the examples) and tried to figure out the intent of the questioner, and they included supplementary information to answer that too, when possible.

For example, in the question about the sports player population in San Francisco and Los Angeles, they defined it as anyone engaging in some form of physical activity, listed two reports or surveys that had slightly different results and the differences between them, and at the end they provided categories of sports and the estimated participation in each in each of the cities.

I thought these were good examples of research and analysis, and if you study the examples, you can see how they gathered the information and wove it together very nicely. They also analyzed the questions carefully, which is vital in researching anything. Whenever I forget that, fact-checking and research always takes longer.

 

Google Search Shortcuts
The good folks at Webopedia provided an updated list of Google Search Shortcuts a while back, and there were a few there I wasn’t familiar with or had forgotten. I use the “weather” search term every day before I go out for exercise, because I like the graphic display. The “book” search looks useful too, among others. And “define” is something I use constantly.

More to come in October, I hope.

2. July 2016

posted Jul 13, 2016, 10:43 AM by Frank Steele   [ updated Jul 27, 2016, 12:32 PM ]

July 13, 2016

An Information Trap

Tara Calishain at ResearchBuzz is starting a great instructional series on information traps: “monitors placed on the Web in general or on a specific Web site or network to grab new or updated information.” Part 1 is “Starting from Scratch,” and it has detailed instructions on how to learn about a new topic and keep up to date on it through Google Alerts. (Her subject is drones, in case you’re an enthusiast.)

I love examples, as that’s how I learn best, and this first article is full of them. Setting up the Google Alerts involves several Google searches to determine the best terms to search for. She also uses Google Trends, which is something I’d never considered. I learned a lot, and I’m looking forward to putting some of this to use.


July 21, 2016

How to get started in online investigations with open-source intelligence

An article from FirstDraft News:

Myself and others at First Draft frequently receive emails from a whole range of people asking how they can start doing the sort of online open-source investigation and verification that they’ve seen us doing. The skills and methodologies used are all something that can be learnt through a little persistence, but here are a few pieces of advice to get you started.

The advice majors on social media and geolocation: using clues in photographs or videos to find the precise location it was captured, therefore verifying it is in the location claimed by the person sharing it (or finding the location if none is given in the first place). I’d been hoping for more text-related advice, but I haven’t checked out all the links yet, so maybe I’ll find it there.


July 27, 2016

An Information Trap, Part 2

ResearchBuzz continues its series on information traps: “monitors placed on the Web in general or on a specific Web site or network to grab new or updated information.”

Setting Up and Sharing Google Alerts

In part I, Anatomy of an Information Trap, Part I: Starting From Scratch, I walked through the process of gathering data on a topic I knew very little about (drones) until I had seven solid candidates for Google Alerts. In part II, I’m going to be going through the process of creating Google Alerts for these topics, as well as showing you how to share the fruits of your findings without blowing up someone’s e-mail or just tossing everything in a text file.

Getting the Facts Right
Writing at “An American Editor” blog, Daniel Sosnoski has a post that talks about checking the accuracy of quotes, double-checking math, avoiding anachronisms, and looking things up when you wonder “Is this really so?” Good examples, and reading through them sharpens your sense of what to look for.

Oversight Garden
Courtesy of ResearchBuzz: Oversight Garden. “The US government has many dozens of offices dedicated to keeping the government honest and efficient through strong, independent oversight. They produce a lot of good work, but the results are scattered all over the internet. Sometimes they get the attention they deserve, and many times they don't. It would be a shame for good oversight to go overlooked. We gather the work of the US government oversight community in one place so you can freely search and subscribe to it.” There are around 50,000 documents on the site.

1. June 2016

posted Jun 5, 2016, 8:53 AM by Frank Steele   [ updated Jul 31, 2016, 9:07 AM ]

June 5, 2016

After a few months of heavy work, I’m going to start posting to this blog again. (I’ve compiled the first six months of blog posts into a PDF, which can be downloaded, and I’ll add anything noteworthy to it from time to time.) Here are two brief points I’ve been meaning to mention.


Automatic Translation in Google Search
This came via the Google Operating System blog a few months back:

If you search for a word in a foreign language, Google now automatically shows the translation. For example, you can search for [amanecer] to get the English translation of the Spanish word, instead of typing [translate amanecer] or [translate amanecer to english].

This works well, unless the word you enter is also in use in English. I tried [socorro] and [placer], two Spanish words with common English meanings, and didn’t get the automatic translations. So your results may depend on how common the word is in English.

NASA’s Worldview
I learned about this program from a post by Daniel Russell, and I enjoyed playing around with it. Here’s how he described it:

It's like Google Earth with worldwide archival satellite coverage.  (When you try it, be sure to turn on the "Corrected Reflectance" layers by clicking on the eye icon on the left side of the layer.)  Once you do that, you can cruise through time and space to see remarkable images of almost any place on earth, going back in time quite a while.

I’m not sure how I can use it in fact-checking, but I’m happy to know about it nevertheless.


June 13, 2016
Why Learn Search Skills?
ResearchBuzz has an interesting post, titled “Don’t Be a Snob About Searching the Web – A Cautionary Tale.”

Sometimes when I try to teach someone about search, I can’t quite get them to see the point. Why should they learn to use search engines well? Why not go straight to Wikipedia, or IMDB, or some other reference compilation? The large reference sites would surely have the answers they seek. And if they don’t – then the information’s probably not online, right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong. SO wrong. In fact, I recently had an experience that wonderfully illustrates how wrong this idea is.

“Untangling the Web”
If you’re interested in the NSA’s 2007 guide to Internet research, you can get the 643-page PDF here. I downloaded a copy last week and have been skimming it little by little. I’m only 75 pages into it, and so far the only surprising thing has been how much the Internet has changed since then.


June 23, 2016
How Vocabulary Can Affect Your Search
Daniel Russell had some good examples of how language can changes over time, so if you’re searching for something historical, you may need to use historical language:

The language of the past is somewhat different than the one we speak (and write) now. As a consequence, when you're trying to search for historical content, you sometimes (often?) have to shift your language to accommodate the way authors in the past would have written.

Along the way he covered some good material on search techniques, as usual.


June 25, 2016
How can you determine if a source is unbiased?
I know how to do this with individuals, but evaluating the reliability of various institutes and organizations is something I’ve found difficult. I came across this helpful tidbit in an online fact-checking course from API that I’m taking:

Check the Annenberg Institute’s “Critical Thinking Resources.” Affiliated with the University of Pennsyvania, Annenberg lists the political leanings of various organizations and offers comments on the organization's value as a resource.

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Frank Steele,
Jun 4, 2016, 12:36 PM
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