Website analysis

An exercise in critical thinking

I will post on the course web page a list of web sites related to the environment in some way. Your job is to choose one of these web sites, and evaluate it. There are three parts to this assignment, plus a concluding paragraph:

  1. Who’s behind the website (sponsoring organization(s), funders)? What is their interest in disseminating information about the environment? You might want to do some investigative googling to check up on the sponsors—things on the web are not always what they seem . . . Some of the resources here will be helpful as well. History and background go in this section. Do not expect the site to give you all the information you need for this assignment–they may be trying to conceal the sources of money and political affiliation. What kind of ethical viewpoint(s) is(are) represented?
  2. Website content. What kinds of content exists, how current is the information, what is the quality of the content (i.e., is it written by the webmaster, by well-known scientists [and how would you find this out?], politicians, PR professionals, ), who seems to be the intended audience, etc.? Does the website represent itself accurately and honestly? Again, use some of the resources to verify and fact-check content. Is the information ecologically informed? Whose point(s) of view is represented? Are the authors/creators of the site easily identifiable (i.e., is the site transparent)?
  3. Functionality. Is the site easy to navigate, intuitive, do you get lost, is there content that is hard to find because of poor design, is it full of commercial ads and banners, pop-ups, , does it look homemade, or is it the product of slick production and web authoring? Is the material current? Are there links for members of the media (always a good indication of who the site’s intended audiences might be)? Beware–often times the sites that are easiest to navigate are the ones developed and maintained by public relations firms for industry or corporate clients, who remain in the background.
  4. Conclusions. What did you learn about the site and how it represents environmental issues? Were there any techniques used that were particularly effective, or not? What does this assignment tell you more generally about what you might find on the world wide web?

Critical thinking skills–Elements of the paper

  1. What reference sources does the site use (informational sources, scientific, news, watchdog, googled sources, etc.)? Do they have any undisclosed self-interest?
  2. Site history (any clues as to why it was created, either official or from critics?), what organizations/foundations are behind (i.e., funding/supporting) the site? How transparent is the site (how much can you learn about who’s behind it from their own content)? How is it funded?
  3. Is the site deceptive? In what ways (concrete examples—think about the sources of information—where do they come from, are they credible/respected, etc.)? Do they use specific techniques of deception, references to patriotism, fear, smearing critics, referring to ‘junk science,’ etc.? Does it misrepresent itself? To respond to this one, you will have to do some homework and examine some of the claims made by the site, perhaps compare this with the owners/funders/backers of the site, etc..
  4. How effective is the site at communicating its information? What kinds of ‘experts’ are involved? Does it have links for journalists (is it trying to work its way into mainstream news)? Do other sites link to this one? Mainstream sites, or other like-minded sites?
  5. Production, graphics—is it slick, does it look homemade, like something the Unabomber would do?
  6. Describe what you did, where you went, what research you undertook.

You’ll be evaluated on your description and analysis:

  1. Description of the assignment above should serve as a guide.
  2. Using evidence, making your case from available sources. Have you drawn on evidence from articles/websites/online lecture material to support your points/conclusions?
  3. Recognizing authority. Have you evaluated the author’s / authority’s points of view and the credibility they claim (what are their credentials? Are they respected? Where do they get their funding)?
  4. Recognition of multiple dimensions of an issue. It isn’t enough to pick apart the website—all of these have valid points to make as well, and it is your job to explore the complexity of some of these issues— they are not black and white—and to show me you understand both sides of an argument (you may disagree violently with one side, but you must show me you understand it). Most of these sites, while deceptive, are claiming to do some socially redeeming things. So I’m looking to see if you can understand what gives the site some appearance of legitimacy, and what makes it at the same time deceptive, if not entirely illegitimate. Note: If you’ve gone through your site and think there is nothing deceptive about it, you need to do more work or choose a different site. Because this assignment is about how people get taken in by deceptive information and propaganda, falling prey yourself will not earn you a passing grade.
  5. A note on spelling/grammar. I expect your paper to be proofread and free of spelling and grammar If errors get in the way of understanding the points you’re trying to make, you could lose up to a letter grade (5 pts). Make sure you have someone proofread your draft.

This will obviously require some sustained detective work on your part—I want to know what the sites are all about, what individuals or groups or corporations are behind them, what others may think or be writing about them (the point of a google search), what kinds of activities they engage in (e.g., do they specialize in natural resources, they fall on the political spectrum (e.g., liberal, conservative, partisan, libertarian) or ethical spectrum (e.g., free market, conservation, preservation, ecocentric). You will need to scour available resources to learn about your chosen site. And you would be surprised how many students, despite the precautions here, will be taken in by their chosen sites (not good for the grade, you should know).

Paper length should be 4-5 pages, with more analysis than summary of content on specific pages. Use content to support points you’re making, not to fill up the page. Supporting your conclusions with evidence from the website is essential for doing well on this assignment. I want to know what the organization or website is all about, its audience, its strategy/techniques for communicating to its audience, etc. Are they who they appear to be, or are they hiding behind a green-sounding name? On the list of websites are other web-based resources that will help you do some of this work (at the bottom of the page), but I’d also recommend spending some serious effort searching the Web. Again, this is detective work. Some combination of the following resources will be indispensable in doing this assignment.

The following sites will help you ask some critical questions about the site you’ve chosen:

  • California University at Berkeley Library page on evaluating web resources
  • From Cornell University’s Library

Resources to investigate the site

On the website sign-up sheet, at the bottom, is a list of resources that may be useful for doing this assignment. Each student should look this page over, I would be surprised to find none of these sites used in a non-gratuitous way on a student’s paper. I would start from the top and work your way down. Ignore them at your own peril (for the course …).

I will be looking to see that you used outside sources to analyze your website and write your papers. You should cite all of the sources, web-based or otherwise, that you use at the end of your paper. APA style is fine, or you can use the format I use when citing articles or web pages.

Point breakdown:

  1. Thoughtful analysis: 20 points
  2. Good research, use of sources: 15 points
  3. Covered all of the elements of the assignment: 5 points
  4. Documented sources (use APA): 5 points
  5. Writing (needs proofreading, coherent organization): 5 points

Rubric for assessing analysis and use of sources (40 possible out of 50 pts):

Thoughtful analysis
Demonstrates partial understanding of how the website uses deception/ persuasive tactics
Shows basic understanding of how to critically examine site content
Analysis is thorough and demonstrates ability to critically examine site content
Good research, use of sources
Few if any outside sources are used or cited
Some use of outside sources to investigate site content and claims
Shows command of resources used effectively to investigate the site and its claims
22-27 pts
28-33 pts
34-40 pts

50 points possible. Final paper is due Nov 9. Papers should be 4-5 pages, double-spaced–I’ll stop reading after 6 pages. Submit in Canvas. This is a major assignment—take it seriously, I do. I have seen students wreck their A’s on this one, mainly because they did not engage in critical analysis. Be forewarned.