Independent fact checkers like Snopes and FactCheck.org are great tools to have on hand, however, your own critical thinking can be the best first line of defense against misinformation. This blog post will help you develop the skills to evaluate whether what you read, hear, or watch is reliable information.
Most online news, regardless of its reliability, uses evidence such as expert quotes, statistics, scientific findings, photographs and other facts to back up its claims. Unless the evidence is entirely made up (which, as discussed later, is easier to figure out), it comes from a primary source. So, the best way to make sure you’re being informed accurately? Go straight to the source! Though it might take a bit more work than accepting everything you see online as truth, critically thinking about where your information comes from will make you more informed and less vulnerable to misinformation.
Finding the Original Source
Looking at the overall structure of a news story is the first way you can judge its credibility. Ideally, every claim will be backed up by evidence, a corresponding source, and finally, the writer’s analysis. Credible news stories will back up their claims with plenty of evidence including expert quotes, photographs, facts, survey statistics, and scientific findings. So, if the story makes many claims that are not followed up with evidence, that’s the first red flag.
If the story passes this first test, the next question you can ask is whether the writer indicates exactly where that evidence came from. This can differ depending on what media form the story is. For articles and blogs, the source may be indicated by:
- The writer saying, ‘according to…’ or ‘a recent study by…’ before a statistic
- Putting the source in brackets after the evidence
- A superscript number with a reference list at the end
- Inserting a hyperlink leading to the original source
- Including a reference in a photo caption
Regardless of what the reference style is, it should directly attribute the evidence to a person or organization. Things to look out for are when the writer says, ‘according to experts…’ but gives no indication of who those experts are, or reports a survey statistic but does not tell you who it was performed by. For infographics you might see posted to social media like Instagram or Facebook, if there is no source in the main text, look to the bottom corners. When watching a video, if the source isn’t indicated on screen or verbally when the evidence comes up, check the video’s description box or comments for a source. If you can’t find any indication of how the author knows something, you should be wary of accepting the information as factual.
Can’t find the source?
If you’re scrolling through Instagram and come across a post making some sort of health claim but it does not indicate where the information comes from, copy the claim into your favourite search engine and see what comes up. Maybe you will be able to find a different article that uses that same piece of evidence, and the author provides a link to the original source. Best-case scenario, you’ll find the primary source matching the claim of the original Instagram post. But if you’re having difficulty finding anything credible that matches the claim, ask yourself, ‘If this were true, wouldn’t other people have covered it as well?’.
Beware of the hyperlink
Hyperlinks appear as blue underlined text that you can click to go to another page. Ideally, the link will lead you to the original source for that evidence. However, since people have come to associate seeing the blue with knowing the information is sourced, oftentimes they don’t click it. Authors of misinformation know this trick and sometimes use many hyperlinks to make their work appear credible. The only way to know is by clicking the link. This will tell you if the link is even real (and not just blue underlined text) and leads you to an actual other page, not just ‘page not found’. Many times, the hyperlink will lead you to another article on a similar topic by that same organization, rather than to the actual source of that evidence. If you’re clicking and clicking through a maze of hyperlinks and still can’t find the original source of that one piece of evidence, ask yourself why the writer is making it so difficult for you to find the original source.
Is the source reliable?
If you’ve gotten this far, you were successfully able to locate the original source of the information used. To find out whether the source is reliable, we need to figure out where it came from.
For science-based evidence, this should be an article published in a peer reviewed journal. This means that the research was reviewed and approved by other experts as being scientifically sound, meaning that the collection and analysis of the data was correct and that its conclusions are sufficiently supported with enough data. You can figure out if something was peer reviewed by looking at the journal’s ‘about’ page or searching for the journal on this database. Before the research goes through this process, the authors can post it to a public server so it’s accessible to the public as something called a ‘pre-print’. Preprints allow research to be disseminated much faster, which is why a lot of COVID-19 research covered in the news is actually based on preprints. These servers will often have ‘rXiv’ in their title with watermarked pages, but if you’re not sure, here is a directory of different preprint servers. Though most preprints are eventually published, significant changes are often made when the research goes through peer review. Keep this in mind when deciding how much weight to give evidence from a preprint vs. published scientific research.
Of course, even non-scientific news still needs to have evidence that is sourced. Often this will be in the form of facts and statistics. In the case of reporting statistics, if the post doesn’t provide background info on who participated in the survey or tell you how to find the original survey data, be skeptical. Survey statistics are a really easy place to leave out information that dramatically changes the way you think about a statistic. Reports by independent organizations are also often cited in news stories. To figure out if that organization is reputable, go to their website and look at their “about” page to see if they’re associated with a particular political party. Look to see if other credible sources have covered the organization to see if there are any potential biases their reports are known to have. Generally, government reports will have an official government seal and are found on websites with .gc.ca or .gov extensions. Website extensions with .edu are also trustworthy. Not all .org websites are reputable, so further research on the particular organization is required. Finally, if a story quotes a so-called “expert”, search this expert and see if other reputable news sources trust them. Are they associated with a reputable institution?
Does the information match?
Okay, so your chosen piece of information made a claim, used evidence, gave you the source for that claim, and you identified whether the original source is reputable. You’ve already done more than what the story’s creator thought you would, but now it’s time for the real test: Does the information provided by the news story match with what was said by the original source? For scientific sources, you can try reading the last few lines of the abstract which will give you an overall idea of the conclusions drawn from the results of the research. Does this match with what the story said, or were the conclusions dramatically overstated to make the piece seem more sensational?
For difficult to understand sources, try looking for a plain language summary – sometimes the authors of the research will provide a summary or overview for the public, sometimes on their Twitter account. If that doesn’t exist, check other news sources reporting on the same evidence – are the conclusions the same across these sources?
Other things to watch out for
You’re almost done, but here are a few more things to be aware of when checking the credibility of a media source. Ask yourself, “why is this writer using this particular source?”. Keep in mind who the author is and whether there may be a conflict-of-interest present, meaning that they stand to benefit from presenting the information in a certain way. Facts and images taken out of context are a harmful way to spread misinformation and sway the reader. If a report or peer-reviewed publication was cited in something you read, check the original source to see if the writer declared any conflict of interest. Academic research often mentions funding from industry partners, which isn’t necessarily bad, but keeping in mind the potential for bias will help you to become a stronger critical thinker.
Lastly, check the date of the source your article, Tweet, or video used. Using research that is outdated may indicate that the author is more interested in proving a point than communicating reliable information. If you’re feeling up for a challenge, try searching for newer data on the same topic.
Ultimately, you shouldn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce how an author got their facts. If a story interests you, but the author’s choice of evidence is ringing your critical thinking alarm bells, find other information on the topic to develop a more-informed stance.