How Do You Know If Information Is Accurate? How To Evaluate Information Sources
Does your favorite celeb really know what s/he is talking about? Is the politician you trust most really telling the truth? Is the nonfiction book or article by your favorite author really accurate and factual? What do you know about the person who wrote that ‘forward’ you received in your email? Do you even know that person’s name? Here is help in determining the answers to those questions.
As most people have learned, anyone can write anything in a book or on the Internet. Just because something is in print in any form does not make it accurate and factual. Just because you heard it on television or radio, does not make it true. Just because something was stated persuasively, or convincingly, by your favorite politician, actor, singer, author, or best friend, does not make it fact.
It is important to evaluate the sources and information you use for references whether your purpose for using them is for a research paper, a classroom discussion, an exchange of ideas with a colleague or friend, or information you are using to base your vote for a particular candidate on.
If your reference or information source is not credible, neither will your research paper or your opinion that you base on that reference/source be credible. The only people who will be impressed with your misinformed opinions, whether written or spoken, will be people as uninformed as you are, so take the time to be as accurate as possible and to get the facts. Know what you are talking or writing about.
Everyone Has an Agenda
There are many reasons why people make the statements they do. Everyone has an agenda, and if you can determine what that agenda is, you will have an advantage in determining why someone says or writes what they do.
Everyone talks about the media being objective, yet there is no such thing as objectivity in the media and never has been. From the beginning of newspapers and magazines and other written words, the writer of those periodicals has had an agenda that they are promoting through their writing. Their agenda is their purpose for writing what they write, in the way they write it, in order to sway their reader’s opinion or position on the subject they are writing about.
There are newspapers, magazines, television and radio networks, and even authors who are considered either conservative or liberal depending on their position on the issue they are writing about or reporting. If you are aware of what is referred to as the slant of the reporter’s position on the subject, or the slant of his/her media outlet’s position on the subject (newspaper, television network, etc.), that can help you in judging whether or not the story or report is factual and accurate.
Knowing where an author is coming from is important in judging what they have to say. Very often reporters state the facts accurately, but then state them in a way that seems positive or negative depending on how they want their readers or listeners to feel about those facts. Sometimes their statements are factual as far as they go -- but a few little things (or big things) that would make a difference in how the information is received, are simply left out. What is provided is factual, but what is left out can make a world of difference in what has actually been said, written, or what actually happened. Getting information in context and getting ALL of the information usually makes a huge difference.
Since every reporter and every media outlet of every kind has a slant (either conservative, liberal, or moderate, in favor of or not in favor of), it is a good idea to read or listen to many different stories, or reports, on the same issue/subject to help you determine where the truth lies.
Some information sources are more credible than others, because they have been in business for a very long time and have established a strong reputation for accuracy and dependable facts.
In general, universities and government agencies have a great deal of credibility. Information presented as facts by these institutions carries a lot of weight. Research and studies done by these entities, or commissioned by them, is usually given more credibility than when done by a private industry because presumably they do not have an interest in the outcome, where private industry does.
Even so, the results of research and studies done should always be judged as to whether the research or experiment was conducted in a careful, objective, scientific manner. There are correct ways to go about conducting research and experiments, and there are sloppy, less reliable ways to do it.
Other than universities and government documents, here is a list of a few periodicals that are generally respected by most people of high learning, and people who are authorities or experts in their fields:
- The New York Times (liberal)
- The Wall Street Journal (conservative)
- Time Magazine (conservative)
- Newsweek (liberal)
- CBS News (conservative)
- ABC News (liberal)
- New York Post (conservative)
- The Huffington Post (liberal)
- Wikipedia (slant varies)
- Cleveland Clinic
- Mayo Clinic
The above is just a short list of well-established, generally accepted credible media entities. This is something you learn from doing a lot of research and reading.
Even though all media outlets lean either liberal or conservative, that does not mean that every reporter or anchor on their staff is of that mindset. There is usually a mix of both perspectives within most news organizations, but the overall slant of these periodicals and media outlets is as stated in the parenthesis. If you understand that when you are listening to or reading their reports and stories, you will have a better understanding of why they are presenting a particular perspective on a story.
The Entire Purpose of Some Sources of Information Is to Mislead
There are many sources of information whose purpose is to mislead and misinform. Their main purpose is to persuade you to their way of thinking just because they believe they are right and everyone else is wrong. Sometimes they stand to gain financially or to obtain power if they can persuade enough people to see things their way, and sometimes they simply believe that their way is the only right way.
There are some people, for example, who would force people if they only could, to accept their religious beliefs. They will say and do whatever it takes to bring people in line with their beliefs and ideas because they truly believe the end justifies the means. That is just one example. There are many examples of intolerant people who do whatever it takes, including making up what they present as facts, to persuade people to their way of thinking whether it is in regard to religion, politics, or something else. If you do not know how to verify whether their information is fact, opinion, or downright fiction, you are more likely to fall prey to their misinformation.
It is important to realize that everyone has an agenda, and everyone has a reason for wanting you to agree with him or her on whatever subject they are discussing or promoting. If it is an advertiser, their agenda is pretty obvious. They want you to buy their product or use their service. If it is a politician, they want you to support them and their political Party so they can win the majority of elections and determine the direction the country will take for the next few years. They may very well benefit in their personal finances and in other ways as well.
Sometimes it is an advocate for a particular social issue who wants to influence your opinion on things like the environment, abortion, the legal drinking age, prayer in school, or any number of different issues that will affect millions of people.
Do Not Be Fooled -- Always Verify the Accuracy of Your Information
In every case you should verify that the information someone is giving you is accurate and factual. In every case you need to determine what is fact and what is opinion. Sometimes the information presented will be extremely incorrect and misleading, especially where politics or products are concerned.
In the beginning, doing the necessary research on these things can be difficult because you may not be used to reading political or scientific jargon (depending on what applies to the subject at hand), but like most things, it gets easier with practice and diligence.
Do not be fooled into believing that a statement or common belief is accurate just because a lot of people believe it or accept it as truth. Again, verify the statement or belief. It takes only seconds in many cases.
Some of the worst misinformation is spread virally through email forwards. For some reason people tend to accept whatever these email forwards say without question, never even wondering who originated the ‘forward’ or whether there is even a single word of accuracy in them. Often there is none.
Do not be hornswoggled. Be informed, and know your facts whether they pertain to the Bible, politics, products and services, or statistics and scientific determinations.
Nowadays with the Internet and first class search engines, it often takes only seconds to determine the truth of statements and accusations. Learn what sources (people or institutions or periodicals) have credibility and which ones are simply spreading their own opinions based on misinformation and distortion of the facts for their own benefit.
Know the Difference Between Fact and Opinion – Never Assume
It is important to know facts from opinion. If you are not sure, it takes only minutes, often just seconds, to verify whether or not a statement is fact. Opinions cannot be verified because they are not facts.
Research the person who is making the statement. Learn who s/he is and what their agenda has been previously. Does any respected source list them as a credible authority or expert on the subject they are commenting on or promoting?
Do not assume anything. Never assume that because someone is well known that they are being factual. Do not assume that someone who is not considered a well-known expert or authority in a particular area is not informed. Take a few seconds or minutes to research the facts.
Parroting (repeating) things you have heard others say that some of us may know through our knowledge or research is mistaken or misguided takes a lot of credibility away from you. Never imagine that a lot of people saying or believing the same thing means it is accurate or correct. People used to believe African Americans were not even human, and those same people believed women were incapable of serious responsibility and thinking. Yes, and at one time those same people believed night air and bathing caused disease. No matter how long you may have believed something to be true, it pays to find the truth from a credible source just in case you are wrong.
Even when I think I already know something, before I spread the word through my writing or conversation, I research to make sure. Learn the truth before spreading misinformation or lies.
Kirszner, Laurie G., and Stephen R. Mandell. Research: Chapter 33 – pages 270-285. The Brief Holt Handbook second edition. Fort Worth, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1998.
- Fact or Opinion? Do You Know the Difference?
The definition of fact and opinion and the difference between the two and why that difference is important.
Questions & Answers
© 2011 C E Clark