Judging Information Sources

The other day I was doing some online research and came across several websites and blogs on the topic.  Just about anyone, and any organization, can have a website today.  One website can serve a multitude of functions depending on the goals of the person or organization running the site.  For example, a research organization could also sell its publications from its own website.  People can put just about anything online that they want.  It gets difficult to sift through all of the information in order to find reliable, credible, or accurate information.  Even professional journalists/news stations can get stories wrong, and have gotten into trouble for trusting what turned out to be unreliable sources of information.

They say that the devil is in the details.  Below are just a few of the things that I look for when judging information sources:

Location/Name of site:

The URL of a website usually contains a clue to its reliability.  For example, information on the latest scientific research into astronomy most likely will not be located on a website whose address sounds like a steamy romance novel.

Can the bias of the author/organization be determined in the name of the site?  For example an organization with the name “no drugs ever!*” might not have the most balanced information on different types of drugs, their addictiveness, and any side effects.  However, if I am looking for the opposing sides’ opinion I might actually use the information to get ideas as to their position and research further at other locations.

Author:

  • Who is the author?
  • What expertise do they have?
  • Do they state their credentials anywhere?
  • Do they have a position?  Is that position stated?  I have found that the bias of an author can be found in what information is included and excluded.
  • What motivation does the author have?  Is there a financial reason for them to be writing this opinion?  For example if they work for “No Drugs Ever!*” then they are being paid to write the article and tailor the contents to the company’s overall message.
  • Is the author consistent?  Do they hold those who disagree with their position to the same standards as those who agree?

Content:

  • How current is the information and any examples used?  In what context are they using the information?
  • Is the information from a primary, secondary, or tertiary source?  The Telephone Game shows how information can change with each subsequent retelling of information.
  • Does the information used have citations back to the original source?
  • Can the information be verified?
  • Is there a bibliography?
  • Does the information presented allow me to reach the conclusion presented?
  • How many sources of information were used?
  • Is the information consistent: If an author uses the same quote, statistic, chart, graph, etc., over several articles does it stay the same; or has it changed with each article?
  • Do they give attribution when using quotes?

Technical Issues:  When it comes to the more technical issues, there is some leeway as everyone makes a mistake.  Also, when it comes to some grammar, spelling, and other items there is some difference depending on nationality and regions.  For example, the term, “Sun break” is more common in the northwest United States, than it would be in the South.  The term “y’all” is more common in the south than in the northwest.  UK English spells several words differently than they are spelled in American English (grey/gray, neighbour/neighbor, phoney/phony, fillet/filet).

  • Spelling: Are there a lot of spelling mistakes?  Are the words written in shorthand, for example, “2nite” instead of “tonight”?
  • Grammar: Is there an overabundance of grammatical issues?  There are some common grammar mistakes such as “than vs. then” and “to, too, two”.
  • Punctuation: Do they follow general punctuation principles?  One common punctuation mistake can be found in direct vs. non-direct quotes.  Direct quotes get open and closing quotation marks, and each time a new person talks/thinks, it starts a new paragraph.
  • What is the tone of the writing?  Is it positive or negative?
  • Is there an abundance of typographical, including spacing, issues?
  • Word choice: do they use cussing and swearing in order to make their point?

There is a lot of information available online.  It is up to the reader to use critical thinking and determine if the information is credible or not.

  • disclaimer the example(s) used above is not intended to reflect any specific website/blog/email outside of the imagination of the author.  The example(s) in no way are inspired by any specific blog or website.  In other words, I made up the name, “no drugs ever!” and did not intend any similarities to any real person, place, entity, website, blog, or thing that ever has, does, or will exist.  🙂

 

Links:

 

Be careful what you write (https://roseylinn.wordpress.com/2013/12/06/be-careful-what-you-write/)

Telephone Game (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_whispers)

Commonly misspelled words (http://www.greyorgray.com/most-commonly-misspelled-words.html)

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6 thoughts on “Judging Information Sources

  1. Good advice. I don’t know if you were aware that there has been disagreement within The Heritage Foundation since Jim DeMint took over. Many who wanted the organization to continue as a conservative think tank have left, as the new direction has been more on advocacy of conservative issues. This change caused the flight of some of the better thinkers and researchers.

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    1. Thanks. I thought Heritage Action started in 2010? I recall reading some news articles about the issues the Heritage Foundation is having. When DeMint took over on April 4, 2013 he is quoted, on the “About Jim DeMint” page of their website, as saying that they would remain a research institute “dedicated to impeccable research and data driven policy analysis.”

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      1. I believe you are right about the dates. Yet, the article I saw the other day mentioned top researchers leaving the Foundation. The problem is I cannot find the article now.

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