Your family is deciding to go out for dinner, and it’s your turn to pick the restaurant. You find a local seafood spot that looks pretty tasty. However, when you research it online, you read a review saying the food was rotten, the service was terrible, and the prices were too high. You’re disappointed and about to look elsewhere when you realize that the review was posted ten years ago by the manager of the fast-food chain across the street. After some more research, your local seafood spot seems like a great option, and you and your family head out for a delicious dinner.
The process of finding reliable sources shows up everywhere in life. Whether checking where to eat or researching for your next assignment, the ability to find trustworthy sources can be the difference between ending up with a great dinner and term paper or heading to sleep with a stomach bug and a failing grade.
A reliable source is one that provides a thorough, well-reasoned theory, argument, or discussion, based on strong evidence.
How It Works
Finding a reliable source starts with evaluating where the source came from. A primary source is an immediate, first-hand account from the person who was giving the speech, publishing the research, or otherwise producing the content. A secondary source is one that summarizes, evaluates, or interprets these primary sources.
If you’re reading a secondary source, it’s a good idea to find the primary source yourself and make your own opinion before agreeing with the secondary author’s interpretations. Both primary sources and secondary sources require additional work before you can deem them credible.
If a source is published with the help of a larger organization like a newsgroup or research company, it’s important to consider the reputation of those groups. Have they consistently published accurate and trustworthy information? Are they generally seen as biased toward a certain perspective? Ensuring a source is associated with a reliable background of quality work will boost its reliability.
All sources are subject to an author’s implicit bias - meaning the viewpoints and perspectives that the author holds will shape their work. Identifying an author’s bias is an essential step toward deeming a source reliable. Looking at someone’s previously published work, life experiences, and peer influence can all help answer the question, “What would this person be more naturally inclined to believe and share?”
A good sign of a source being reliable is if the author addresses this bias. Analyzing common counter-arguments, avoiding large generalizations and grand conclusions, or directly acknowledging their bias are indicators that you’ve found a reliable source despite the inevitable presence of bias.
As you read into your source, be on the lookout for statistics and referenced studies. Authors can easily cherry-pick information and statistics that support their argument and manipulate the numbers from a primary source study. Look up the statistics and studies to ensure the source is giving a fair and accurate representation of the data.
Finally, once you’ve critically analyzed what you find in the source, ask what you haven’t found. What is left out from a source can be just as telling as what’s included. Think about when and where the source is from and the topic it’s discussing. Is there anything that comes to mind that you don’t see addressed? Reporters, speechwriters, editors, and researchers all have blind spots that may result in important information being omitted from their source.
Finding reliable sources can seem lengthy and unexciting, but without them, you’ll be trying to solve a puzzle blindfolded. The choice not to take the extra step to find a reliable source is exactly what so many bad sources are hoping their readers fall prey to. For all the strong and credible sources in the world, there are many more sources trying to mislead and manipulate readers.
The goal of these bad sources may be to persuade someone to purchase an unreliable and faulty product, vote for a harmful politician, or act against their own best interests. All of this is much easier when readers are not critically reading information and finding reliable sources.
Learning to identify and avoid bad sources can save you and your community significant hardships. Meanwhile, finding reliable sources will guide you to quality information you can use to formulate a strong argument, understand a key topic, or pick an amazing dinner location!