Sometime in the mid-1990s, someone created a tutorial that said that an important aspect of judging a Web site’s trustworthiness is its top-level domain, such as “.com,” “.edu,” “.org” and “.gov.”
This canard permeates virtually all Web tutorials to this day, and generally says that a Web site run by a government agency, school or organization could be trusted, while a commercial site, or “.com,” is suspect.
Teaching this does more harm than good.
First of all, it's simplistic.While students should understand the concept of Web addresses, the mere fact that something is published on a Web site with a .gov or .edu is now accorded far too much weight in evaluating its accuracy.
When we compiled the SweetSearch site index, we reviewed the entire lists of “.gov,” “.edu” and “.org” Web sites. Most of the “.gov” sites had a level of editorial oversight warranting their blanket inclusion in the index. But the presence of a sea of unaccredited schools meant “.edu” sites needed to be handpicked from the .edu list. And long gone are the days when “.org” meant a site was run by a well-intentioned not-for-profit organization; indeed, the .org index is now spammier than any other.
Further, students may not process much beyond the simplistic point. Debra Gottsleben, a librarian at Morristown (NJ) High School, tells of presenting a demo of the school's powerful databases. Minutes later, she found a student consulting Wikipedia instead. Asked to explain, he said "those databases are .coms, and Wikipedia is a .org, and my teacher says we can't trust .coms."
More importantly, an indispensible aspect to determining the accuracy of information is objectivity, which is often lacking in websites across all domains. In our presentations on teaching Web research skills, we teach that the first questions a student should ask when evaluating a Web site are "Who?" "Why?" and "When?"
When a student instead first asks "what's the top level domain?," it dilutes his analysis of who and why.
An Associated Press article from last week cites the example we've long noted; the presidential biographies on the official White House Website. It says, "White House biographies offer an unusual history lesson. Some are examples of blatant boosterism and outdated scholarship. Others are oddly selective or politically incorrect."
A current White House spokesman told AP that the White House would consider updating these biographies, but no amount of updating will change the "Why" - the site exists to celebrate the service of U.S. presidents, not to put forth a balanced, objective biography that includes a critical examination of presidential shortcomings.
For a more specific example of content on a .gov site being of highly questionable accuracy, read this press release from September 18, 2001 in which the EPA announces that "results from the Agency's air and drinking water monitoring near the World Trade Center and Pentagon disaster sites indicate that these vital resources are safe."
In an earlier blog post, James Sullivan related a lesson he learned while doing research for a profile of American political pamphleteer Anna Ella Carroll.
As Sullivan wrote, a frequently cited source of information on Carroll was the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, a page found at the Maryland State Archives’ Web site—a “.gov.”
Carroll’s legacy is her disputed role as the mind behind the Civil War strategy that eventually led to demise of the Confederacy. She was a feminist and suffragette icon for supposedly being denied recognition for a monumental idea based on her gender. However, some respectable resources paint a picture of Carroll as a politically savvy self-promoter, who in all likelihood embellished her claim and manipulated evidence to support it. While we take no position as to the historical accuracy of either of these competing viewpoints, surely a controversial assertion such as this would warrant mention in any biography of Carroll.
Yet the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame piece ignores this contention, stating simply, “The President and his Cabinet kept her authorship a secret; the public was not to know that the Union plans were devised by not only a civilian, but by a woman.”
Why does this Website publish? In its own words, the Hall of Fame “seeks to honor Maryland women who have made unique and lasting contributions to the economic, political, cultural, and social life of the state and to provide visible models of achievement for tomorrow’s female leaders.” Perhaps Carroll would appear a less admirable role model if viewed as a cunning political mind rather than a repressed strategic genius.
This lesson reinforces the necessity of looking beyond the domain, and viewing potential source bias as a determining factor of Web site credibility, whatever letters its address ends in.
Mark E. Moran