The concept of “fake news” isn’t new. In fact, people have been casting doubt on the credibility of sources since the advent of free press. (Check out this Smithsonian Magazine article for some eerily familiar examples of fake news in the time of the Founding Fathers.) But internet accessibility, social media platforms, and globalization have given us access to more sources than ever before.
In the digital age, searching for information can be overwhelming and intimidating. It’s easy to get lost in a sea of articles, videos, headlines, and buzzwords.
To prevent you from drowning in the tidal wave of questionable information, I’ve consolidated advice from the American Library Association (ALA) into a list of simple things you can do to evaluate a source in less than five minutes and a list of red flags to look out for while reading.
Five-Minute Fact Check
- Check the date
- Some information goes out-of-date faster than other information. If you’re looking for current events, technology, medical or scientific news, or other fast-evolving subjects, make sure your sources are current. If you’re reading about history, a niche topic, or something else that doesn’t change so quickly, the date is less important.
- Older sources aren’t inherently without merit, but should be read in the context they were written. For example, an article from 2019 about Russian-Ukrainian relations may be a valuable resource in understanding the history of conflict between the two countries, but it shouldn’t be the only source you consult to understand current events.
- Check the author
- Do a quick Google search to see if they’ve written other articles or for other publications. What are their credentials?
- Check the source
- See if you can find the source’s mission statement. What is their goal in sharing this source? What are their biases?
Resource Red Flags
- Misleading headlines
- Never take a headline as fact. After all, headlines are rarely even a complete sentence and they are notoriously easy to misunderstand.
- If the headline is technically true but implies something false, or if the content of the source isn’t what its headline or title suggests, the author may be trying to mislead or manipulate you.
- Broken links
- Links are meant to connect you to supporting sources. If the links are broken, that means the sites they lead to have been taken down or may even have been questionable to begin with.
- Product promotion
- Is the author urging you to buy or invest in something? If so, do they make any profit?
- Outlandish claims
- If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
- If something truly wild or groundbreaking happens, there will be more than one source reporting. Verify bizarre claims by searching for other credible sources.
- Comments section
- I don’t generally advocate for reading the comment section. Anyone can post a comment and there is no way to verify their identity, credentials, or bias, so comments are definitely not a reliable source of information. That said…
- Check to see if people in the comment section provide evidence (i.e. reliable sources) that refute the source you’re reading.
- If the comment section is particularly contentious, that means there are conflicting views on the topic. Your source isn’t necessarily unreliable, but consider consulting additional sources to get a broader understanding.
A great place to start looking for credible sources is the library’s Explore page, where our information professionals have curated a variety of resources. On this page, you can find newspaper archives, journal articles, auto repair databases, legal resources, job-seeking advice, educational opportunities, and so much more.
Information and Reference staff are always happy to help you find credible sources. Visit us in person or contact us at email@example.com or 715-839-5004.