How to Figure Out if a Source is Credible
We are bombarded with information every day. We watch television and videos on the internet, read books and magazines, and listen to the radio or podcasts. The question is whether or not we should believe the messages we are absorbing. Savvy consumers of information evaluate the messaging they are seeing and hearing to weed out the advertising, the biased, the manipulative, the fictitious, and the sheer nonsense that they may have chanced upon from the factual, logical, and well-researched information which provides a sound foundation for understanding.
Part of deciding whether information is to be believed is determining whether the source is credible. Here are questions you can ask to figure out whether to believe the source of the information or not.
1. Where does the information come from? Who is behind what you are reading, seeing, or hearing? In particular, be alert to bias. Scientists supported by the oil industry may present a different picture than those funded by environmental groups. Politicians may be catering to the big business entities who funded their campaign or just happened to build a factory in their jurisdiction. Be wary of hearing only one side of an issue.
2. What are the source's credentials? Do an internet search on the person to ascertain their background, training, and previous articles or books.
3. How would the source know? Is this an expert practicing in that realm of information? Or is this an eye witness? In the case of a witness, find out how much of the event the person saw, heard, or felt. When did they arrive at the scene? Where were they located in relation to the event? You will also want to know if the person has special knowledge in their background that would lead you to give more weight to their testimony. Additionally, it is important to keep in mind that most people give their account in the way that allows you to see them in a good light. Many witnesses will try to tell you what they think you want to hear - think how a young child attempts to avert a parent's anger - adults may adjust their report in a similar way. Finally, you need to keep in mind that the witness may be deliberately lying. The lie may be motivated by fear for themselves or someone close to them, an anticipated reward, or revenge. Having a single source does NOT mean that the information is inaccurate. It could very well be true. Nevertheless, if you can find other sources, particularly physical evidence, which attest to the same sequence of events, then you know you have a stronger probability of knowing the truth.
4. Have you heard or learned something from this source before? Did the information turn out to be accurate the last time? While a source which has proven to be reliable before may be provisionally trusted, the fact that the source has been accurate in the past is NOT a guarantee that the information he is giving you this time is correct. Double check.
5. How recent is the information? Information recorded at the time of an event (or shortly thereafter) is often the most accurate. An example from genealogy research is a birth record made at the time of the birth as opposed to a death record which includes information about a birth. Technology and science are two rapidly changing fields where information released yesterday is more likely to be accurate than information reported thirty years ago. Understanding whether you should give more credence to information generated today or years ago is important to your ability to judge the potential helpfulness of the information and source you are evaluating.
6. Approach Internet source material carefully. Anyone can put up a website. For a trust-worthy source, look for websites run by highly regarded universities, respected medical institutions, government agencies, well-known non-government agencies, and reliable news outlets. Please note that some universities allow students to have personal websites using the university's .edu extension. Those sites are not necessarily reliable. Websites where anyone can contribute information (i.e. Wikipedia and so on) are not good sources. Use their information as hints and go find a more authoritative source.
7. Verify by cross-checking with other sources.
8. Examine the writing for style, grammar, and spelling. Style will give you clues to what the author is trying to do: persuade, educate, report fairly with all sides presented, or rile you to action. Poor grammar and misspelled words are indicators of some combination of lack of editing or review, a non-English speaking author, or an uneducated author. These factors by themselves do not necessarily mean that the information is incorrect; just that you need to examine it more carefully.
9. Publications which print peer-reviewed articles and research results can generally be relied on since more than one expert in that field of study will have weighed in on the accuracy of the information and the logic of the argument.
10. If you are associated with a university, check to see if it provides access to OneSearch. OneSearch allows you to check the holdings of the university's library for materials (books or articles) by the author you are investigating.
11. If the source is an academic author, check with Google Scholar to search for other works by that particular academician.
Evaluating the credibility of a source gives you a better idea of how much credence you should give to the information presented. Sources who have proved to be reliable and accurate in the past, who are presenting information in a balanced, non-provocative way, whose work has been reviewed by other experts in their field, and have first-hand access or experience with the topic of interest are credible. There are many sources of information and, depending on the topic, sources will not fit all the criteria above. In these cases, you will want to identify and check with multiple sources, if at all possible.