Setting the Record Straight: How Many Items Do US Households Actually Have?
Digital Digging by Henk van Ess
This investigation about an article in The New York Times illustrates the importance of meticulous verification to maintain the integrity and reliability of information. It includes 12 verification tips you can use for any investigation.
Methodology Note: I included screenshots to capture how the examples looked at the time I conducted the searches. These results may change over time. The search on the internet company Brevvie is just an example of how to expand your research on any company you find on the internet.
Verification is all about accurately assessing claims and statements. I took an article from The New York Times that claimed the average US household contains more than 300,000 items. Please read the (unpaywalled) article first. It’s about the sharing economy and a company renting out anything from expensive tools to expensive carpet cleaners — things one wouldn’t need daily.
We zoom in on the claim of 300,000 items. How was it determined? Is there a reliable source or study supporting this claim? And then we will look at the rental company featured in the NYT article. Should you trust their sales pitch?
Image: Screenshot, Twitter
Here are 12 verification tips, applied to this article, that will come in handy to examine any claim and spot any potential red flags that might call for further research.
1. Check the Details
How would you search for the claim of 300,000 items? “300,000 items” with a comma is common in English-speaking countries, while “300.000 items” with a period is typical in European countries. You will get a whole different set of outcomes if you search for the full phrase — with the comma you get a few hits, and with the period nothing is found.
Little details matter. Researching “hydraulic fracking” (often used by opponents) leads to different sources than “hydraulic fracturing” (used by the shale gas industry).
Take the spelling of just the name of a person. A different spelling leads to different results:
Image: Courtesy of Henk van Ess
Pay attention to language nuances, punctuation conventions, and variations, as they can greatly influence the outcome of research or the understanding of a particular topic.
2. Go from Macro to Micro
Back to the article. It says “average American household.” Online, that might be described differently. Additional sources may mention “typical households in the United States.” “Possesses” can also be expressed using alternative terms such as “has,” “owns,” or “holds.”
To explore different phrasings, it is advisable to start with broader search terms and gradually narrow down the focus.
If you want to find some variations for your phrase first, don’t use quotation marks yet. Google will create variations for you. Instead start with: average American household possesses over 300,000 items
Done? We see way more variations, like holds, contains, and are.
Other sources could say 300,000 things or 300,000 possessions. To allow any word to pop up after 300,000, use a placeholder for items, things, possessions with an asterisk, and add “OR 300,000 *” so your search phrase looks like: average American household possesses over 300,000 items OR “300,000*”
Now focus on locating the most relevant words that appear together in the same sentence, rather than scattered throughout the page.
By utilizing the AROUND(number) operator, you can instruct Google to search for words that are within five words or fewer of each other in the same sentence. I didn’t use any quotation marks here because it’s ok that Google comes up with synonyms.
First, we learn that the claim has been around for awhile. It was already mentioned in 2014.
But is that the oldest reference?
3. Time Machine
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