Here are some tips for evaluating news sources
On the first research paper I ever wrote, I was told to write down the call numbers of books I needed on an index card, find them, then photocopy the applicable pages.
There were no doubts in my mind or in my teachers’ minds that the information I found was quality and reliable.
After all, the publication process for a reference book is rigorous.
Now, with so much more information easily and quickly accessible online, we must judge every piece of information with greater scrutiny. Anyone can publish anything online without any kind of quality assurance.
The information available to us offers many benefits and disadvantages.
The disadvantages of the non-curated information can even be seen on the letters page of the Maryland Independent.
Blog posts or opinion-based pieces of writing should not be passed off as facts.
Being able to critically analyze sources of information is a crucial skill in the information age. Now, students are taught how to find information and judge whether it is reliable and trustworthy. For those of us who grew up before or during this informational transition, it seems those lessons were lost on some folks.
When reading something online, all should take note of if the piece is branded as fact or opinion.
For example, in the print and online pages of this newspaper, opinion pieces are on this page and on a dedicated page online. They are not passed off as news pieces.
If a news source doesn’t clearly differentiate between news and opinion and/or they don’t identify their authors, proceed with great caution.
Second, analyze the qualifications and potential biases of the writer. A quick Google search can help find this information. Is the writer trying to sell you something?
Where and how did the author learn about this topic? This question is more to find out whether the writer is really the best person to learn from. I’d rather learn from someone knowledgeable than a keyboard warrior writing a blog post.
Then, analyze the sources the writer uses. Sources must be cited. Do they rely on blog posts, social media posts, sources only from one perspective, anonymous sources or poorly-conducted or biased studies or polls? If so, proceed with caution.
Ask why the writer is writing the piece.
Are they writing because they are upset or trying to convince others of their opinion? Or, are they writing to inform?
Opinion pieces can be helpful to understand a variety of perspectives but should not be your main source of factual information.
Good news pieces will include the opinions of multiple sides of an issue without inserting the writer’s own opinion.
A professor once told me that the mark of a good journalist is the ability to accurately quote someone they disagree with. If you can clearly find out the personal opinions of the writer of something designated as a news piece, proceed with caution. Sadly, I’ve often seen personal opinions passed off as news in several “news” outlets in our local area. Lastly, analyze your own bias. What experiences and knowledge do you have which cloud your ability to look at an issue from both sides? Are you willing to read the perspectives of people you disagree with or are you only looking at sources to support your own opinions?
These tips are just some of the most common errors I see and this is not an exhaustive checklist.
For more tips on evaluating sources, Poynter and Cornell University Digital Literacy Resource’s Evaluating Web Resources checklist are good resources.
Think before you read. Think before you click “share.”