How to be sure of the facts

Judy Knighton | March 17, 2017

Image, person buried under piles of notes.

Buried again. Image by projectbamboo / CC BY-SA

We live in the thick of a constant barrage of information. Some of it is true, much of it is slanted to a particular viewpoint, and some is even deliberately false. How can you tell whether information is credible?

Where did the information come from?

First, check your sources. Government and academic sources tend to be highly reliable. Websites with no ‘about us’ page and headlines that scream outrage tend to be less so.

What can you find out about the author? Are they writing in their area of expertise? Have they written several publications on the topic? Have they spoken at conferences? Have other authors referenced their work?

Ask similar questions about the publisher. Can you find out who funds or sponsors them? Are there ads, and if so are they for products or organisations with a particular interest in ‘slanting’ the type of information you’re reading? Does the publication try to persuade to a particular agenda? If the publication is a website, does it link primarily to sites with a similar agenda?

Does the information sound credible?

If it sounds unlikely, it bears further checking. Dark chocolate is good for the heart? Perhaps, but research studies hedge that statement with all sorts of conditions and reservations.

Consider the expertise of the people quoted as supporting the information. For example, you might consider a statement from a renowned actor on theatrecraft as more credible than a statement from the same actor on nutrition or robotics.

Do other sources support the information?

If the original text offers references, check some of them. Do they truly support the information? It’s easy to take text out of context. Or put a sentence into an internet search engine and see if you can find it elsewhere. If information was reproduced, was it done with permission?

Can you check any of the figures? For example, if someone makes a claim about adult literacy levels, can you find credible figures from international studies to support or refute the claim?

Is the information recent? Stories often resurface months, or even years, after they first appeared, and the situation may have changed.

Does the text support the headline and any images?

Headlines are often written to attract attention, and may not be accurate. Even a genuine attempt to summarise the story in the headline might fall short of full accuracy, but some publishers seem happy to sacrifice truth for sensationalism. Or perhaps the information is satire; you can’t know until you’ve read it all.

Similarly, pictures may be chosen for their impact rather than their accuracy. Are they of the actual event being discussed? Were they staged or otherwise changed to support the story?

The truth is out there, as the late night TV show used to claim. Follow these steps, and you’ll have a better chance of recognising it.

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