When you want to know something you search for it on the Internet. If it’s a simple question the answer can be pretty simple, too. If you want to know the capital of Uruguay (it’s Montevideo), then you just ask. But what if you want to know the population of Uruguay? Right on the first page of results it says the population is 3.449 million people. But one of the search results says 3,473,794 people (3.473 million). Which one is correct? What should we trust?
The population of a country is a simple fact but sources disagree. It is also a relatively non-controversial question. No one will enter into a Twitter-war with you over the precise value. But other issues inspire a great deal of heated debate. Many of these issues have important implications about public policy or our health. It’s important to get it right. Doing a search on these topics to learn more is no longer simple. You have to be careful about your sources. First, because you want to know the truth and second, because you might be writing a paper for school and you want to make sure your sources are trustworthy. Here are some guidelines for evaluating a source. This is especially useful if you are new to a subject or don’t know much about it.
Who? Who wrote the information you are reading?
Is the person an expert on the specific topic on the page?
Are the qualifications of the person given?
What organizations is the author associated with?
Who paid for this article to be written? (Who does the author work for? What organization is publishing it?)
What? What are the main ideas presented?
Is the article written clearly and well or does it contain grammatical and spelling errors?
Is evidence given for the ideas? Does it actually support them?
Are there references or a bibliography that documents the source of given evidence?
Are the documented sources actually relevant to providing support for the main ideas of the article?
Why? What is the purpose of the article?
Is it factual reporting?
Is it a scholarly article?
Is it an opinion or editorial, meant to persuade?
Is it entertainment?
Is it an ad? Are there a lot of ads (especially click-bait)?
What is the intended audience? Does that audience have a bias or existing position that has an impact on the credibility of the information?
When? How current is this information?
Is the information likely to change as time passes?
Is the article recent or old?
If it is old, has it been kept up to date?
If the article gives links to sources are the links live or dead?
Where? Where is this page published?
Is the page published by the government, a school or university, a non-profit organization, a think-tank or advocacy group, or a commercial company?
Is it a social media page?
Is it a real newspaper or a site made to look like a real newspaper?
Read through at least one of the pages given at the links above in further reading. Then answer the following questions.
In general, what defines a reliable source of information?
Find an interesting article online about current events or human health. Record the title, author, and web address.
Find some details about the author or authors. Are they an expert in the specific field? What qualifications do they have? What organization(s) are they associated with? Who paid for this publication?
Give a brief summary of the content of the article. Is it well-written? Is evidence given? Are there references to good sources?
What is the purpose of the article? What is the intended audience?
How current is the information? Has the page been kept up to date?
Where is the page published? What does its publisher imply about the reliability of the article?
Give an overall opinion about the reliability of the article you read. Address each of the main questions about sources in your response. The goal here is a paragraph which gives a well-supported opinion based on the things you discovered about your article by answering the questions above.