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Getting Started with Research: Evaluating Sources

Is it biased or just different than what I know?

We hear the term "fake news" often, but what is more common is being caught in a "filter bubble" – in other words, seeking information that we agree with, or that reinforces what we already know and believe.

So how do you decide what is true? Or what is biased? Some pointers:

1. Consider first whether a source is unreliable or counterfactual, not whether it matches your own beliefs. Think about who wrote or published the information, and why. What facts are presented? Can you find those facts anywhere else? See "Critically Examining Information" and "Critique Your Sources" on this page.

2. Examine your own biases.  Bias -- preferring certain views, unfairly or reflexively (without thinking)  -- is unavoidable, but we can learn to  consider other viewpoints carefully. Being open-minded gives us the big picture, and helps us see where our views and others fit.

3. Read articles from different perspectives and think critically about the point of view of each article or news source. What you learn might change your mind, or it might not, but you'll have a broader, more complete understanding.

Two helpful resources:

Filter Bubbles from All Sides

Six Questions That Will Tell You What Media to Trust from The American Press Institute

Critically Examining Information

One of the most important things to consider is whether the information you have found can be verified. Ask yourself:

  • Does the author of a research paper support claims with sources?
  • Do study results support the study's conclusions?
  • In a news article, who is quoted, and how does their view or expertise relate to the issue at hand? 
  • In an opinion piece, do facts support the arguments, and do other sources report the same facts? There may be two or more valid points of view, and you may have to think carefully about which is the most sound in your view. 

Keep in mind that no one source is necessarily always reliable or always unreliable. Instead, get into the habit of critically assessing each article, book, video, or other source on its own merits, wherever it is published.

Critique Your Sources

One of the most important components of the research process is evaluating the information you have found. Here are some things to consider as you look at a source. Ask yourself about each one as you 

  • Is it relevant to your topic? 
  • Is it up to date?
  • Does it include references to other information or sources?
  • Is it from an authoritative or credible source? 
    • Is the author a professional or an expert?
    • Is the source respected in your field or well known for its quality? 
    • Does the source have an editor or other fact checker?
  • Perspective
    • Is the source's tone professional?
    • Does the source present well-reasoned or well-researched information?
  • Purpose
    • Is the author or source trying to persuade? Inform? Advocate? Sell something?
  • Who is the intended audience?

What is a "good" source? There is no one right answer to this. 

Thinking about who created information and why, who it is intended for, and how carefully it was created can help you decide whether it is a "good" source for your needs.

Why Do Our Brains Love Fake News? (5:20)

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