How to Find Reliable Sources and Spot Misinformation

portrait of Anne Dennon
by Anne Dennon

Published on October 12, 2020

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How to Find Reliable Sources and Spot Misinformation

Familiarity with technology and software has become a valuable skill, with many employers admiring college graduates' digital literacy. Much of this literacy is developed while working on homework: College assignments, papers, and group projects all typically require online research to some degree.

In an era of alternative facts, fake news, and rampant misinformation, strong online research skills have never been more important. As professors have reminded students for decades now, simply going to Wikipedia for all of your information won't cut it. Good grades in college often hinge on finding good sources.

But what makes a source credible? And how can you differentiate reliable sources from unreliable sources?

Start by Looking For Basic Credibility Clues

When you first encounter an online source, you should actively search for basic credibility cues. This includes checking the URL — .gov (government) and .org (nonprofit) domains tend to be more credible sources, while misspellings or a .co domain may be red flags.

Proper use of language and a well-functioning website can also indicate authority. By contrast, less credible websites often have telltale signals, such as high pixelation; flashing ads; and ungrammatical, misspelled, or highly passionate language.

How to Tell Whether a Source Is Credible in 5 Steps

College librarians advise students to put every source they find through the CRAAP test:

Currency Relevance Authority Accuracy Purpose

Whether you're writing a research paper for school or investigating a bold claim making the rounds on social media, you should always check to make sure the sources are credible. Here are the most important questions to ask yourself as you evaluate an online source.

Look at the date of publication or the last refresh of a page or article. Depending on the type of information, if it hasn't been touched for a few years, it's possible further findings have come to light that may complicate, supplement, or undermine the assertions. Keep in mind that information in some fields, such as healthcare and technology, can rapidly become obsolete.

Does it require an illogical leap to get from what the source is saying to what you are trying to say? Good arguments follow one clear step at a time.

The presence of the peer-review process, footnotes, bibliographies, credits, and/or quotations all help establish authority. Look at the credentials of the author and the "About Us" page of a website to determine a source's qualifications to speak on the subject.

You should also check whether there are any interested sponsors. For example, a report issued by a pharmaceutical company backing a drug study should be met with an appropriate amount of skepticism.

Evaluate the evidence, the source of the data, and whether other authorities on the subject can verify the assertions. Extreme bias or emotion in the language makes accuracy less likely.

News articles, academic papers, and op-eds combine facts and analysis in different proportions according to their purpose. When sources aim to entertain or sell, those purposes provide extremely different motives, which can make the source less trustworthy.

Finding the Most Credible News Sources

Credible sources include peer-reviewed journals, government agencies, research think tanks, and professional organizations. Major newspapers and magazines also provide reliable information thanks to their high publishing standards.

Reputable news sources require all content to be fact-checked before publication. Like the peer-review process, fact-checking puts more eyes on information before it is shared, increasing accuracy and objectivity.

While objectivity is important, even the most reputable news sources have their own biases and fall somewhere on the political spectrum. Every source is speaking to its audience. According to Pew Research Center, that audience tends to be either more consistently liberal (e.g., The New York Times) or more consistently conservative (e.g., Fox News).

Even the most reputable sources have political bias. This is exacerbated by the fact that strongly negative clickbait titles tend to generate more traffic.

The most credible news sources are just that — plural. Today's divisive political climate is fueled by the presentation of opposing "facts." Look for the counterargument to any assertion by reading broadly, and then check all claims for yourself.

That being said, try to avoid the trap of bothsidesism. Just because an alternative viewpoint exists does not mean it is equally valid.

When we're stuck in a filter bubble, we consume news from a single area of the political spectrum. Our web searches are tailored to what we've searched for before, which strengthens this trend. You can pop that filter bubble by taking advantage of the private browsing feature on your web browser and by using multiple search engines.

Library Databases Reach Further Than Google

While the typical internet search surfaces mostly popular sources, a library database search brings up academic sources. Besides some phony journals to watch out for, most of these academic sources have been peer-reviewed by a panel of topic experts.

Most academic sources in library databases have been peer-reviewed by topic experts.

Unfortunately, a typical internet search often leaves you on the wrong side of a paywall. Newspapers and magazines may offer a certain number of free articles per month, but many credible sources require a subscription. Quality data collection, research, and analysis takes time and money.

The good news is that a portion of your college student fees pays for access to many quality resources. With your student login, you'll get access to global databases of books, journal articles, videos, and other reliable media, which can help you avoid misinformation online.

Feature Image: Mitchell Layton / Contributor / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images North America

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