In the context of web context: How to check out any Web page

One of the great fears about the Web as it becomes our primary source of news is the notion that it rips stories from their moorings and delivers them to us context-free. We’re adrift! In a flood of soundbites! Borne upon a river of bits! Or something like that.

I’ve never understood this argument. As I tried to suggest in my Defense of Links posts, the convention of the link, properly used, provides more valuable context than most printed texts have ever been able to offer.

But links aren’t the only bearers of digital context. Every piece of information you receive online emits a welter of useful signals that can help you appraise it.

The techniques described here first filled my quiver in the ’90s, when I worked as Salon’s technology editor. We’d receive story tips and ideas, some of them pretty far out, and we’d scratch our heads and think, “Can this be for real?” I began applying an informal set of tests and checks to try to prevent us from being manipulated, pranked, or turned into a conduit for bad information. This was our way of trying to take the “discipline of verification” at the heart of the journalism we’d always practiced and apply it to the new medium. We knew we’d never be perfect. But there were scammers, hoaxsters and nuts out there, and we were damn sure not going to be pushovers for them.

Though some of the details have changed in the intervening years, the basic principles for evaluating an unknown source remain relevant, I think.

Once you’ve done some or all of this work, it may be time to actually try to contact the author or site owner with your questions. If there’s no way to do so, that’s another bad sign. If there is, but they don’t answer, it might be a problem — or they might just be really swamped!

Software developers use the term “code smell” to describe the signals they catch from a chunk of program code that something might be off. What I’m trying to describe here is a rough equivalent for online journalism: Call it “Web smell.”

No one of these tests, typically, is conclusive in itself. But together they constitute a kind of sniff test for the quality of any given piece of Web-borne information.

There are probably many more tests that I’m not remembering — or that I never knew in the first place. If you know of some, do post them in the comments.

BONUS LINK: Craig Kanalley’s “How to verify a tweet” assembles a similar set of tests for tweets.

FOLLOWUP: Craig Silverman’s “How To Lose Your Gut” (at Columbia Journalism Review) has some more tips.